Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

12.12.2014

Catholicism at the Poles: Births and Baptisms, North and South


At CARA we sit on a mountain of data about the Catholic Church (…including a new and ever expanding database of international figures). I can always count on one set of numbers to leave me scratching my head—baptismal data (1, 2). In the previous post we examined how birth rates are falling globally. Fewer babies means fewer baptisms right? But there is an odd “swirl” in the numbers the closer one gets to the North Pole. Forget the Francis Effect. Is there a St. Nicholas Effect?

Northern Europe not only leads the continent in baptisms per 1,000 Catholics, it also matches the Catholic crude baptism rates in many high fertility countries in Africa (“crude” rates measure something relative to the size of a population, often “per 1,000”). In 2012, on average, there were 13.9 baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in Northern European countries. Finland, Iceland, and Denmark rank just ahead of Ireland, which is closely followed by Sweden and Great Britain (Vatican statistics combine Ireland and Northern Ireland). Only Norway doesn’t seem to “fit in.”


There are more baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in this region (based on data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae), on average, than there are births per 1,000 of the population (based on data from the World Bank). In many areas of the world (including the U.S.), Catholics are no more or less likely to have children than people of other faiths. However, Northern Europe appears to be one place where perhaps Catholic fertility rates, as reflected in the crude baptism rate, are slightly higher than the general population.

It is the case that there are just 11 million Catholics in this area of the world and most reside in Ireland and Great Britain (97 percent). Only about 165,000 Catholics live in Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden combined. That is about enough to fill the seats in two football stadiums in the United States. There are mega-parishes in the United States with more registered parishioners than the total Catholic population of Finland or Iceland. But these Northern European outliers are real and consistent year after year (i.e., this phenomenon is not limited to the 2012 data). There truly is something different and exceptional about the practice and transmission of the faith in this area of the world.

This region has been a destination for immigrants from other areas of Europe in recent decades. Polish immigration in particular is of interest (1, 2, 3, 4). Is there something different about the fertility and baptism decisions of Catholic parents depending on the social context where they live? Particularly, if you are a Catholic immigrant in a majority Protestant region does it make you even “more Catholic” than you would be in a majority Catholic country or a country with religious pluralism? Does religion become an even more salient aspect of one’s identity and their sense of nostalgia for their place of birth?

Kosovo has crude Catholic baptismal rates similar to Northern Europe and is also a country where the faith is small relative to a large majority (Islam). A few other Eastern European countries have relatively high baptismal rates (10 per 1,000 Catholics or higher) including Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, and Croatia. In many other Eastern European countries the baptismal rate falls well behind birthrates—meaning that likely some Catholic parents are choosing to delay or not to baptize their children in the faith.


In Western Europe, where Catholicism has been historically strong, the baptismal numbers are perhaps most troubling for the Church. The average crude birth rate in this region is 10 per 1,000 of the population. Yet, the crude baptism rate is only 6 per 1,000 Catholics. Many of these countries have very low fertility rates and rely on immigration to maintain population stability (…some failing to do so). It could be the case that immigrants are driving crude birth rates higher than what these are among Catholics alone in the region. Yet the disparity between birth rates and baptism rates is still significant.

In all of the preceding tables we have shown the ratio of adult baptisms (ages 7 and older) to infant and child baptisms and the numbers of Catholics per parish. In Northern and Western Europe there is only about one adult baptism for every 25 infant or child baptisms and the number of Catholics per parish is typically about 2,500. This means no one is likely standing in line for a baptism and few who baptize children wait until after age six to do so. These indicators look much different in other parts of the world.

The table below shows the infant and child baptism data for African countries with relatively high crude baptism rates. Eight African countries have crude baptism rates higher than Finland. However, note that relative to the crude birth rates in these countries there are likely many Catholic parents with unbaptized children in these countries. In Uganda there are 44 births per 1,000 residents and only 28.5 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics. It is possible that Catholic fertility rates are lower than others in Uganda but this is unlikely. With 29,798 Catholics per parish in Uganda it could be that some parents are putting off baptism due to limited access to a parish and/or priest. It is the case that there are only four infant or child baptisms for every baptism of someone age 7 or older. So more baptisms are occurring later here than in Europe.

Only on the island of Mauritius does the Catholic crude baptism rate exceed the crude birth rate. In a handful of countries there is near parity between the number of infant and child baptisms and the number of adult baptisms celebrated (e.g., Rwanda, Mozambique, Ghana, Mali, Togo).


There are other African countries in this region where baptism rates look a bit more like Western or Eastern Europe. These are shown below. Notice the massive differences between the crude birth rates and the crude baptism rates. Either Catholics in these countries are disproportionately unlikely to have children or they are delaying or forgoing baptism altogether for their children. There is considerable evidence of delays with the average ratio of adult baptisms to child baptisms for the region reaching 1.9. For every baptism of someone under age 7 there are nearly two baptisms of someone age 7 or older. There are more baptisms of older Catholics than younger in the Central African Republic, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivorie, Chad, Guinea, and Liberia. Is this a case of waiting lines? Too few priests available? Parishes too far for regular travel? On average, there are 16,426 Catholics per parish in these countries. That means there are more Catholics per parish in these countries, on average, than in all of Finland (…where there are seven Catholic parishes).


The “swirls” in Catholic baptismal rates are not limited to the North Pole. As one moves further south we see again relatively high rates in Oceania. On average, in this region, there are 20 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics which is consistent with the region’s birth rate of 20.1 babies per 1,000 in the population. There are also relatively few baptisms of older Catholics and low numbers of Catholics per parish. These conditions, similar to Northern Europe, mean that there is unlikely issues of access to a parish or a priest that may delay baptism. In fact, the four countries with the highest crude baptismal rates in the world are in Oceania: Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands (try that as a trivia question!). Similar to Scandinavia, there is not a large Catholic population here. In these four countries combined the total number of Catholics is just about 218,000.


If Catholics are following the teachings of the Church they should be baptizing their babies within a year of their birth. Unless you are a martyr seeking to be a Christian (and dying because of this before baptism) your salvation, according to the Church, is in question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions, “as regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” (1261).

Throughout history, parents typically had their infants baptized quickly out of a concern that they faced very real risks of death. Between 20% and 30% of infants did not survive historically and in some periods and places this rate reached 50%. Still today, the Church allows a lay person to baptize someone wishing to be Catholic who is facing death or severe illness if no clergy are available. The Catechism states “In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize” (1256).

Around the world today there are about 20 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (2% mortality rate). There is a high of 31 infant deaths per 1,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to 6 infant deaths per 1,000 births in Europe. All things considered, the risk of an infant dying young is considerably lower today than in the past. But it is also the case that these risks are still higher in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe. We might expect that Catholics in Africa might be more motivated to baptize their infants than those in Europe. However, we must also consider the relative access to parishes and priests those two populations face. If the Church is to keep up with the population growth in Africa it will likely need to invest in more brick, mortar, and priest collars. In Western Europe it must attempt to reinstall the culture and habits of infant baptism.

Some of the exceptional baptism rate countries highlighted in this post are also relatively small. The table below shows the top ten countries for total infant or child baptisms. These are the countries supplying the world with the most new Catholics each year. In total, these nations accounted for 7.7 million of infant and child baptisms in 2012. This represents a majority of the world’s celebrations that year (56 percent). Notice that even where the numbers of infant/child entries is largest, only in Poland does the crude baptism rate at least match the crude birth rate.


So I will continue to scratch my head... Are Catholic parents in many areas of the world deciding not to baptize their infants? Are they delaying baptism? Letting the child choose their own faith at a later age? So many data points, so many anomalies. At least the latest news from the North Pole is good... Merry Christmas!

Image courtesy of Visit Finland.

11.18.2014

Are We Ready for a Future with Fewer Surprises?

With the Synods on the Family occurring this year and next it seems like a good time to look at some “family matters” from the perspective of social science rather than the theology and doctrine being discussed by the Church. In recent weeks, when topics like Ebola or climate change have entered the news and politics, we’ve heard a steady stream of calls for people to “look to science.” That is excellent advice. In that spirit, let me start with a concern. I am really worried about Sen. Elizabeth Warren...

Election 2016 already? Am I suddenly showing some partisan leanings? I’m not even registered to vote! Yet the world needs more people like her. How so? Earlier this year Sen. Warren noted on an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that her childhood nickname was “The Surprise.” After this admission, co-hosts, former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, also noted they were “accidents.”

That was a brave public moment for Sen. Warren. The popular discourse on parenthood in the United States has entered a bizarre stage largely devoid of science (e.g., biology, genetics, demography). Parents, especially those with multiple children, have earned the moniker “breeder” for their overpopulating of the planet; “unintended” pregnancies, like Sen. Warren, are now assumed to be unwanted and something that needs to be discouraged as a public policy; and there is even a growing Childfree Movement.


Some who consciously choose to never have children don’t do this because they dislike kids or think they would be a bad parent. Instead they are deeply concerned about the impact of adding to the global population and the effect that this could have on the environment. Take for example Guardian editor Lisa Hymas:

Population isn't just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. … When someone like me has a child -- watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution. Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them.”

Hymas focuses here on one set of potential consequences and seems not to understand the internal dynamics of the population growth we are experiencing (...like many others). Concerns about overpopulation are very real. We’re likely headed toward more than 10 billion people on the planet by the end of the century and we need to figure out how to produce enough food and energy for them. But babies are no longer the primary concern. You, me, and Lisa Hymas are! Globally, fertility (i.e., average number of births per woman over her lifetime) has been falling for decades (from 4.98 children per woman in 1960 to 2.47 in 2012). The increases leading to the “overpopulation” so many fear in the near future will be driven by those who have already been born living longer than people have in the past. As shown below, the Census Bureau expects the global senior population (ages 65 and older) to increase from about 617,097,000 now to 1,565,844,000 in 2050. That is growth of 154 percent in just 35 years.


The annual number of births worldwide is actually expected to decline during this period by 2 percent numbering just over 130,000,000 each year. In 2000, without notice or ceremony, the world reached an important milestone: “peak childhood.” There were no big news announcements or parades but it happened. From then to now and into the future we can expect there to be about 1.9 billion children (under age 15) around the world at any time. Yet, if the world pushes fertility rates even lower (...press play on the graphic below to see how we got here) we will enter a strange period in human history in which we will take steps toward living with an “inverted population pyramid” where there are many seniors and few children. 

  

In the quest to reduce “overpopulation” many suggest we need to squeeze the bottom of the population pyramid even further without fully realizing the complete consequences of that suggestion.

I certainly don’t think anyone should ever be pressured to have children (e.g., the CeauČ™escu regime in Romania). It is also regrettable when states prevent those who seek to be parents from having the children they want (e.g., the One-child Policy in China). Openness to children is a deeply personal decision with many factors to consider. Some feel they should never be parents for a variety of perfectly valid reasons. Others want desperately to have a child but biologically cannot do so. This post in no way implies that any person or couple “needs” to have kids (...if you are a childfree enthusiast reading this you can now put away your breeder bingo card). However, it does accept the scientific reality that no species can survive without sufficient reproduction collectively. 

Humans have always experienced periodic population declines. But historically these have come as a result of disasters, disease, and sometimes war. These circumstances often kill without or with little discrimination. All sectors of society are reduced in number. What many countries around the world now experience is selective population reduction. The young are disappearing (i.e., never being conceived) as the old grow in number with extended life expectancies.

These circumstances make the economics of the modern state’s social safety net increasingly difficult and perhaps eventually impossible. Most advanced industrial countries rely on state programs to assist their elderly populations with income and health care after retirement. These are paid for by taxing the younger currently employed workers (…your deductions do not go into a “lock box” with your name on it!). If each generation decides to have fewer children than the last, eventually there are too few workers per retiree. The drop in fertility in advanced industrial economies is “the deficit behind the deficit” and if current trends continue this will only grow more problematic.

The country out ahead of any other on this path is Japan. As you can see below in this country’s projected population pyramid for 2050, Japan is coming closest to dealing with the many challenges of an inverted “graying” pyramid.


The effects of fertility decline are not just limited to the state budget and care for seniors. A future of fewer people year-over-year will also be one of perpetual economic stagnation or recession for all. Currently it costs a middle class family $245,340 to raise a single child to the age of 18 in the United States. If a couple has two kids that’s close to half a million dollars they inject into the economy. A skeptic might say they would have just spent that money on something else if they had no children. Perhaps but as most parents know having a child can “encourage” you seek out more income out of necessity (e.g., dads, on average, make more than non-dads and the combined incomes of a mom and dad outpace a couple with no children). As I write Japan is again in a recession. Downturns and anemic growth have become the normal way of life there for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future until they begin to grow demographically again (innovations and exports have been insufficient).

During the Baby Boom of the 1950s and 1960s the United States had one of its highest ratios of non-workers per employed. But a sizable portion of these non-workers were children and parents bore most of the costs of their care and upbringing. The country now faces another growth spurt in dependents in the Senior Boom and their children, too few in number or non-existent, will struggle to pay the bills.

One could argue that those who are going through life today without contributing to the replacement of their generation by either having children or assisting in the care and upbringing of those children (e.g., adopting, personally caring for, educating, or directly financially supporting) are shirking or free riding the system (…the same way many young adults were free riding the health care system before the individual mandate required them to purchase health insurance). Sure the childfree who contribute nothing to the “breeding” process will still get taxes taken out of their checks too as they work but they don’t provide enough, if at all, to producing the next generation who will pay for their Social Security and Medicare.

When countries don’t have a sufficient number of children to replace their elders they often choose to import population (…or turn to robot caregivers and workers? See Japan 1, 2). Without robust immigration in recent decades the United States would be headed down a difficult path similar to Germany or Italy and perhaps eventually to the crippling realities faced by Japan and Russia. The U.S. needs to have immigrants always wanting to come here (a luxury Russia can’t count on). One advantage of this is that individuals coming from developing countries often bring with them higher fertility rates, at least for a generation, that make up for sub-replacement rate fertility among citizens. However, this is an incomplete solution to the complex problems created by low fertility as immigrants most often arrive during their working years. All of the spending on raising them by their parents when they were children (and the associated opportunities to collect tax revenue on this) was done in other countries.

The United States currently benefits from immigration from Latin America and primarily Mexico but this may not always be the case. In The Next 100 Years (2009), futurist George Friedman notes that around mid-century “Mexico will emerge as a mature, balanced economy with a stable population—and will rank among the top six or seven economic powers in the world.” At this time he predicts growing anti-Americanism. “Given U.S. programs designed to entice Mexicans to immigrate to the United States at a time when the Mexican birthrate is falling, the United States will be blamed for pursuing policies designed to harm Mexican economic interests.” Friedman anticipates more broadly that:

The population bust will create a major labor shortage in advanced industrial countries. Today, developed countries see the problem as keeping immigrants out. Later in the first half of the twenty-first century, the problem will be persuading them to come. Countries will go so far as to pay people to move there. This will include the United States, which will be competing for increasingly scarce immigrants and will be doing everything it can to induce Mexicans to come to the United States—an ironic but inevitable shift.”

For the Catholic Church in the United States, immigration has historically meant more Catholics but immigration doesn’t increase population on a global scale. If Catholics move from one country to another there are still the same number of Catholics in the world! However, declining fertility will mean that the Church will have fewer global births and this leads to fewer global baptisms. We can already see this beginning to happen. As shown below, fewer infants and children were baptized in the Church worldwide in 2012 than in 1970.


The Catholic Church gets a lot of criticism for its teachings on married couples being open to the possibility of having children. That may not always be the case in the future (especially for countries unable or unwilling to turn to immigration). Some are already implementing public policies to try to encourage their citizens to have more children.

In Russia they celebrate a national holiday called the “Day of Conception.” Couples who have a baby exactly nine months later win prizes. Russians also can receive payments of thousands of dollars per child throughout the year. In Japan the state is playing matchmaker and spending nearly $33 million hosting parties where young people can meet and begin relationships. In South Korea, “family day” was instituted by the Ministry of Health. They turn their lights off at 7 pm on the third Wednesday of each month so employees can spend more time creating “bigger families.” In Singapore they created an ad campaign that included the following line, “I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life.” They are limiting the construction of small one bedroom apartments and provide tens of thousands of dollars for each child born in addition to providing tax incentives and parental leave.

Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore penned a 2012 piece for Forbes entitled “Warning Bell for Developed Countries” regarding his country’s experience. He cautioned that low fertility in the developed world will lead to a “shrinking workforce and a stagnant economy.” He argues, “To have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences. … Fewer young ­people means fewer new cars, stereos, computers, iPhones, iPads and clothes will be sold.”

As the Catholic Church focuses this year on the family it must grapple with the fact that family is just simply becoming less common all together. Where it does exist, it most often now includes fewer people. As shown below the fertility rate is falling in most countries with the largest Catholic populations (i.e., at least 10 million in 2012). The average fertility rate in these countries was 5.2 in 1960 and is now 2.9. In 43% of these 23 countries the fertility rate is now below replacement level (i.e., 2.1; the rate at which parents replace themselves in the population).


Looking at the right side of the figure above, Germany is experiencing population decline—even with immigration and in Italy, deaths now outnumber births. If current trends continue, things will only get worse for both countries. As shown below, Italy is headed for net natural population losses in the hundreds of thousands in the decades ahead.


The Italian fertility rate is currently only 1.4. In the long-run Italy must raise this rate or face a persistent diminishing population. Take the simplest example of a closed society model (i.e., no immigration) of 100 people of child bearing age (50 male and 50 female) and a fertility rate of 1.0. At most, the next generation might be expected to include 50 individuals. If this generation maintains the 1.0 fertility rate, the next generation would likely include 25 individuals. Assuming this society practices monogamy and continues at the same fertility rate, the next generation could have 12 individuals. The following would have six, then three, then one, and then extinction. From 100 to none in seven generations at a 1.0 rate. In more realistic big population models the math extends on a significantly longer timeline (i.e., 25+ generations) but nonetheless ends in the same dismal place without an increase in fertility at some point.

It is the case that women (and men) in the United States continue to say in surveys that they want to hypothetically have about two kids, on average. But people are waiting longer to marry and longer to have children after marriage. There are relatively inescapable biological realities that do not necessarily conform to changing preferences about when to have a baby in one’s life-cycle. Some will reach the point where it becomes difficult, dangerous, or impossible to have children without ever reaching their goal of having the two kids and there aren’t enough Americans having three, four, five, or more children families to make up for those who do not have any children or have only one.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of pregnancies in the United States are “unintended.” For many, “unintended” is not an equivalent of “unwanted.” Not every surprise ends in the stereotypes of the parenting debates of the day. However, it is the case that the Department of Health and Human Services has set a policy goal of reducing unintended pregnancies by 10% before 2020. If achieved, this would drive the U.S. fertility rate even lower below the replacement rate (currently 1.87 births per woman). In the macro view, public policies that aim to drive fertility rates well below replacement levels are inherently risky. If successful, these put so many other government programs in danger of becoming unsustainable by constantly downsizing the next generation of workers and taxpayers who will support the ever growing top of the population pyramid.

I also fear the eventual development of a political cleavage at the other end of the population pyramid. What happens when a society can no longer afford to care for its senior population? Perhaps this is the question that the the Millennial Generation will have to face as seniors. It will not help that they are saving virtually nothing for their later years (1, 2). Will society turn on the Millennials in the decades ahead and encourage “compassionate euthanasia” before they face disability or serious medical problems? Will we ration senior medical care even further or increase taxes on medical research and development so fewer new therapies and cures will lead people to live even longer?

The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a backward “stuck in history” institution. Yet, when it comes to fostering a culture of openness to children and asking many important end of life questions it may play an even more important role in the future than we might think now in 2014. I’m not saying that as a Catholic. I note this as a social scientist who looks honestly at the demography and economics of the future and wonders how we will manage what we are creating now.

Again as a social scientist, it is clear that the high fertility rates of the past in an age of significantly lengthened life expectancies would be unsustainable. However, what is not often recognized is that there is also a level of fertility that is unacceptably low for human society. Many countries are already below this “Goldilocks” rate and globally we may fly by this benchmark by the end of the 21st century. As Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has warned:

The demographic patterns observed throughout Europe, East Asia and numerous other places during the past half century as well as the continuing decline in birth rates in other nations strongly points to one conclusion: The downward global trend in fertility may likely converge to below-replacement levels during this century. The implications of such a change in the assumptions regarding future fertility, affecting as it will consumption of food and energy, would be far reaching for climate change, biodiversity, the environment, water supplies and international migration. Most notably, the world population could peak sooner and begin declining well below the 10 billion currently projected for the close of the 21st century.”

Depending on where you live you may be able to get a view of the future now. Next time you are at the local grocery store look at the pet products aisle and the baby products aisle. Which is bigger? If it is the pet aisle welcome to the future! You already live there. I certainly have nothing against pets. The generosity and care “pet parents” provide for their companions is commendable. But when you are old your golden retriever won’t inject you with insulin or carry you up the stairs. In fact, your dog will be dead (...after leaving quite a sizable carbon paw print on the environment). Sorry. I didn’t mean for this post to end like Marley & Me.

At the same time if we aren’t open to a few more “surprises” this century we’ll have many sad endings to work our way out of other than the possibility of rising oceans. The future is far more complex than our current political debates. There is more to fear than your thermometer. That is not theology nor doctrine talking. That’s science and another, less well known, inconvenient truth facing us.

9.12.2014

Midterms Are a Yawn for the Catholic Vote


The race for the Senate is coming down to the wire. It is highly competitive and the outcome will likely come to define the last two years of President Obama’s term (executive orders or vetoes?). The stakes are huge and the Republicans currently hold a slight lead. But I could not be more bored.

As a political scientist who specializes in how Catholics vote and how Catholic candidates run for office and govern Election 2014 is a bit of a yawn (2016 will be entirely different among the more motivated electorate and a strong field of Catholics running for president).

There are 34 states with Senate seats up for election in 2014 but many have small Catholic populations. In some states with larger Catholic populations the race is not competitive and often does not involve a Catholic candidate. Louisiana is probably the most interesting race as it has a large and important Catholic electorate, the incumbent is Catholic, and the race is a toss up. Democrat Sen. Landrieu is among the most conservative of the Senate Democrats which is interesting as Church teachings are often more similar to what conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans would favor than more “orthodox” Democrats and Republicans (...of course even with conservative leanings some of Sen. Landrieu’s positions and votes would be clearly inconsistent with Faithful Citizenship).

Catholic voters could also be important in Iowa, Michigan, Colorado, and Kansas. None of the candidates in these races is Catholic but the middle of the country is where blue states are often red among Catholics and here Catholic votes could play an interesting role.

The table below shows the estimated number of voting eligible Catholics for Senate races (i.e., already registered or eligible to register; accounting for citizenship and criminal history estimates derived from Gallup polling and the United States Elections Project) and the percentage of eligible voters in each of these states who are Catholic. In six of the ten “toss up” states the electorates are less than 20% Catholic. Catholic candidates in these states include Democrat challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. She, like Landrieu, is seen by many as more conservative than your typical Senate Democrat (…currently 10% of the U.S. Senate is made up of Catholic women). Incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan in Alaska are both Catholic but only 13% of potential voters who will choose between them share that faith.


There are 22.5 million Catholics who could possibly vote in the midterm Senate races (...of course more Catholics are in states where they will vote for House members. Republicans will maintain control of the House). That represents about 20% of the electorate in those states. In the toss up states, Catholics only make up 15% of potential voters. In a March post I predicted the “God gap” may strike back and turn the Senate red. I still think this is the case but Catholic votes would only be a small contributing cause for such a transition.

Once the exit polls are released there will likely be a discussion of who “won the Catholic vote.” If either party is claimed to have “won” the Catholic vote that answer will be wrong. More Catholics will choose “none” than either Democrat or Republican by staying home. Turnout in midterms is typically about 41% (Catholic turnout is often slightly higher).


In one of the likely scenarios approximately 9.5 million Catholics will vote in a Senate race and about 13 million who could vote for a senator will stay home. If the Catholic voters follow their partisan hearts their vote will likely split with 4.6 million going to Democrats and about the same going to Republicans. The remainder will likely vote for other party candidates or cast a ballot without making a Senate choice. Although nationally Democrats hold a slight edge in identity among Catholics, in the competitive Senate states this year there are fewer Hispanics and Democrats meaning the Catholic electorate is likely to be balanced out or even leaning red in Senate races. Depending on possible turnout differentials it could lean more heavily Republican.


The 2016 election will be a very different race. In addition to the many Catholic candidates expected to run for president, the Supreme Court will likely have handed down decisions on same-sex marriage and the contraceptive mandate. Changes to immigration policy, either through executive orders or legislation, will likely be in place. Maybe some of those Catholic candidates will even have time to talk about poverty? I bet Pope Francis hopes so.


Author’s note: I am proudly not registered to vote (...democracy works just fine without me) and I do not identify with any political party or candidate. I do not give money to candidates or parties nor involve myself in political advocacy of any kind (...no I won’t sign your petition). CARA is a non-profit, non-partisan, independent research center committed to “searching dispassionately for truth.”

Baby yawning photo courtesy of Daniel James.

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