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.


Data Check: Catholic Population Changes and New Ordinations

Two recent news stories caught our eye at CARA. The first reports on “declining membership” in the Catholic Church and the second on an “increase in ordinations” in the United States:

Even though the membership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been declining in the past two decades, the billow of Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. has sustained the church and helped keep parishes across the country open.” -Albuquerque Journal

Almost 600 Catholic men will be ordained priests for the U.S. in 2015, an increase of more than 100 from last year.” -The Washington Times

Both of these stories contain some factual elements and they also both manage to be quite flawed reflections of reality...

1. Has “the membership of the Catholic Church” in the United States “been declining” in recent decades?
No it certainly has not. Membership represents the total population of persons who are Catholic (baptized and self-identifying as Catholic) and there has not been any decline in the membership of the Catholic Church in the United States since reliable data became available after World War II.

Has immigration added to Catholic numbers in the United States? Yes; as it always has. Not only does immigration increase the number of Catholics, it increases the numbers of many groups in the U.S. today and is a significant and growing force behind the country’s overall population growth as fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels.

The figure below shows survey estimates from the General Social Survey (GSS) on the size of the adult Catholic population of the United States by place of birth. Fluctuations survey to survey are largely reflections of margin of error. However, the long-term trend line generally slopes up for both those born in the United States and those born elsewhere.

The share of adult Catholics who were born in the U.S. has declined in the last 15 years but this population (i.e., “membership”) has continued to grow in absolute numbers (more on this common misunderstanding involving percentages and population growth here)

Between 1944 and 1996, the Catholic Church in the United States baptized 54.8 million infants and children (representing adults in the U.S. today for which baptism data are available). The current size of the adult self-identified Catholic population in the U.S. is 61 million. In general, the Church’s baptism data are reflected in the memories of people who have been Catholic at some point in their life. As shown in the figure below, the baptisms celebrated in the Church between 1943 and 1960 represent 27% of all births in the U.S. during those years. Twenty-seven percent of Baby Boomers born during those years recall being raised Catholic in the GSS. Today, 19 percent of the adult Baby Boomer population born in the U.S. of self-identifies as Catholic (representing a 72% retention rate among those raised Catholic during this period). Baptisms in the Generation X years (1961-81) reflect 30% of births during this period. Twenty-seven percent of Gen-Xers born in the U.S. say they were raised Catholic. Seventeen percent of Gen-Xers today self-identify as Catholic (representing a 64% retention rate among those raised Catholic during this period).

What is a bit odd is that more adult Millennials born in the United States (1982 or later) recall being raised Catholic than the Church baptized during this period. Twenty-nine percent of native-born Millennials say they grew up Catholic but baptisms during this period represent only 25% of births. Currently, 19% of adult Millennials born in the U.S. say they self-identify as Catholic (representing a retention rate of 63%).

The blue bars on the figure above represent the share of the foreign-born population who were raised Catholic and who self-identify as Catholic. Adding the lightest green color bar and the lightest blue color bar provides the total estimate for adult Catholic affiliation for each generation (19.4% + 6.3% = 25.7% Catholic among adult Baby Boomers).

The pie chart below shows current and former Catholic populations by place of birth among all adults in the United States. What is often ignored in the discussion of Catholics who leave the faith is that immigration also is a source of these former Catholics. Twelve percent of adults are former Catholics and nearly one in five of this population (18%) were born outside the United States.

In 1980, 22.6% of U.S. adults were born in the U.S. and Catholic, representing 36 million individuals. In 2014, 18.4% of U.S. adults were born in the U.S. and Catholic, representing 44.3 million individuals. Again, the population share declined but the total membership of this group increased by more than 8 million or by 22%. This is a rather simple mathematical reality that should have been observed in the news story.

One other tidbit in the original news story was the notion that immigrants help “keep parishes across the country open.” Some Northeastern and Midwestern urban parishes have closed in recent years but this is more due to internal migration (to the suburbs and South and West; 1, 2, 3) as well as priest shortages rather than imaginary “declines” in the U.S. Catholic population. People move, buildings generally don’t. Closing parishes in areas with too few Catholics has made perfect sense. However, failing to open new ones where parishioners can’t find a parking spot will likely continue to be a problem for the Church in many other areas unless new construction picks up.

2. Will the Church experience a big jump in the number of priests ordained in 2015?
Maybe? The reporter in this story was referencing CARA data collected for the USCCB. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh reacted to this research noting, “It is encouraging to see the slight increase in the number of ordinations this year in the United States.” Slight increase is an appropriate characterization. On the other hand, what appeared in The Washington Times and some other outlets lacked some important details and context.

As explained in CARA’s report: “To obtain the names and contact information for these ordinands, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) contacted all theologates and houses of formation in fall 2014 to request names and contact information for every seminarian who was scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in 2015. CARA also requested names from the vocation director at all dioceses and archdioceses in the United States as well as the major superior of all U.S. based institutes of men religious.” This process led to “595 potential ordinands reported to CARA by theologates, houses of formation, arch/dioceses, and religious institutes.” CARA does this so it can then send a survey to the ordinands. When CARA conducted this study in the previous year, 477 potential ordinands were identified and reported to us. Thus, 118 more potential ordinands were identified in 2015 than in 2014 (i.e., a 25% increase).

Potential ordinands and eventual actual ordinands are two different numbers. The research process can be affected by responses to CARA’s request for information each year. This year CARA, was a bit more “relentless” in its follow-up than usual as these data were also to be used in a major new study examining family influences on nurturing vocations.

The figure below shows the trends in the number of potential ordinands identified by CARA in recent years along with the actual numbers of new ordinands as well as the net change in the number of diocesan priests each year with the addition of new priests and losses from deaths and men leaving the priesthood. Generally, the number of potential ordinands tracks with the number of priests ordained but there is some volatility year to year. It is possible that 2015 will end up like 2008 and be more off the mark than other years.

Between 2001 and 2013 the Church in the U.S. has ordained fewer than 500 priests in any given year. In 2014 it passed this mark and is likely to do so again in 2015 but we cannot be sure just how much above 500 this will end up being. That is good news. The bad news is in the red line ( we’ve noted before) Five hundred is still not enough to make up for the losses each year due for the most part to mortality. Only 8% of losses in 2012 were due to priest defections (59 of 740 diocesan priests lost). The Catholic Church needs about 700 to 800 ordinations of diocesan priests a year to stem the decline in the total number of these clergy. In 2012, the Church ordained 398 diocesan priests (along with 59 religious priests). If the Church ordains 595 diocesan and religious priests in 2015 that would indeed be a significant uptick but still insufficient in the broader context.

We can also see the potential numbers of new priests in the years ahead in seminary enrollments. The next two figures are from data in CARA’s Ministry Formation Directory. It documents the relatively steady numbers of those studying to become priests in U.S. seminaries. Currently there are 5,454 of these men and teens enrolled from high school seminaries to post-baccalaureate theologates.

The second figure, showing fourth year theologate enrollments, is more important for predicting how many priests might be ordained in the near future. These numbers have been quite steady in the last decade and retention has averaged 76% during this period (i.e., about three in four of those who enter as first-year students are enrolled in the fourth year). Currently there are 591 seminarians in their third year followed by 654 in their second year, and 661 in their first year (see page 16). Each of these class sizes will be smaller before they reach their fourth year. For example, the 561 seminarians in their fourth year in 2015 numbered 596 in their third year, 706 in the second year, and 768 in their first year.

Until we see the final numbers on those who are ordained it is safest to stick with Bishop Burbidge’s observation of a potential “slight increase.” A trend isn’t evident until you have a series of moving observations. It is possible 2014 and 2015 may be the beginning of a very positive trend for the Church but we won’t really know until we get a third observation in 2016. Even then the Church would still have a sizable deficit to overcome before it reaches a more ideal number of ordinations on the order of 700 to 800 per year to establish stability in the diocesan priest population in the United States.

In conclusion…. Reading these two news stories, people may have been left with the impression that the future will include fewer Catholics and more priests. Both of these notions are, for now, incorrect.

Data image courtesy of janneke staaks.


Catholicism in Space: Houston, do we have a problem?

Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly (raised Catholic in an Irish-American family) are about to embark on an important scientific experiment on Friday. Scott Kelly will begin spending a year in space on the International Space Station (ISS) while his brother stays back here on earth as a control subject. NASA will be studying how extended time in space changes Scott relative to his brother Mark. Living for an extended time outside the gravity of earth and partially exposed to the radiation of space can impact one’s bones, heart, eyes, muscles, and who knows what else.

It’s probably important to start understanding and thinking more about living in space because frankly that is where the human future may be. At some point the Catholic Church will need to think about how people can “do” Catholicism in space. During the shuttle Endeavour mission STS-134 in March 2011, Mark Kelly was part of the crew on the ISS who spoke with Pope Benedict XVI. He told Kelly and the astronauts,

Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure. I know you have been studying your equipment to further scientific research and to study radiation coming from outer space. But I think it is also an adventure of the human spirit. A powerful stimulus to reflect on the origins and on the destiny of the universe and humanity.

Indeed the destiny of human beings is among the stars as our descendants will eventually need to get off this rock to survive (…if we don’t kill each other first). The sun is about to enter its mid-life crisis. At 4.6 billion years old it has more than a half-life to go. Well before then it is expected to get a bit brighter by about 10% in 1.1 billion years. That will begin to make life on earth as challenging as we have ever known it. By the end of its life cycle the sun will become a red giant and consume Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth as well. Before any of that happens, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 3.7 billion years. It could be no big deal for earth or it might be catastrophic. Either way due to the increased output of the sun by that point life on earth will already be impossible. Perhaps the descendant of humans today will have already found somewhere else in “Milkdromeda” to call home? There are numerous other ways the planet or life on it could be doomed much, much earlier including asteroid or comet impacts, a gamma-ray burst, a wandering black hole, a super solar flare, pandemics, super volcanoes, a flip in the planet’s magnetic field… Anyone trying the “save life on earth” or the “planet” is ultimately doomed to fail.

Over the long-term, space is the place and Catholics, like most other Americans, are interested in that exploration. In general, people of faith are just as interested as those without any religion. That means religious institutions will have to figure out how their faith will be practiced in zero gravity, without directional east or west, and without sunrises and seasons. That may be easier for some than others.

So how does Catholicism work outside the walls of an earthly parish among the stars? Of course some have already practiced their faith in space. On Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion that he brought up to the moon (his crew brought a piece of the moon back for Pope Paul VI). Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sidney Gutierrez, and Kevin Chilton celebrated a communion service on the space shuttle Endeavour with Eucharist they brought into space in a gold pyx in 1994. That will continue to work for short trips into space but what about a long journey or in a colony?

If a Catholic priest was on the ISS today could he say Mass? How would one keep the wine in a chalice in zero gravity? What about crumbs after breaking the Eucharistic bread? How does one purify the containers? There would be no candles. Which way is East? When is Sunday in space? When is Easter? Is it really kneeling in zero gravity? How could one confess sins without a priest on the crew?

The late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., had presumably figured out the answer to some of these questions and was hoping to be the first priest to say a Mass among the heavens. He fell short of this dream but did get to fly at Mach 3.35 in an SR-71 Blackbird at the age of 62. It must have seemed like space flight. Someone else may have put some thought to the issues as well. The late Archbishop William D. Borders informed a surprised Pope Paul IV that he was the Bishop of the Moon. As the Bishop of Orlando at the time NASA astronauts were launching from Cape Canaveral to visit the moon he was the bishop of their home port. Thus, he was the de facto ordinary of the missionary lands they explored (six of the Apollo astronauts were Catholic). One could argue the Bishop of Orlando will continue to hold that position until perhaps China sends a crew to the Moon? That is when things get tricky. It is difficult to know as that country has multiple launch sites and sometimes multiple bishops!

There are many questions left to be answered for the practice of Catholicism in orbit or on the moon. Once you get to Mars, Europa, or go interstellar things will get even more problematic. There are not a lot of star systems with planets in our neighborhood of the galaxy. Travel to Epsilon Eridani, at 10.4 light years away, would require a multi-generational effort and a fast craft. There would be no quick returns from earth’s perspective (...after one accounts for time dilation from traveling at such extreme speeds). Of course we do not know if human reproduction is even possible in space yet. Assume that it is and we have a need for sacraments in space like marriage, baptisms, first communions, and funerals. 

I doubt there could ever be Space Cardinals (...even on Mars). There would be no way they could make it back for a conclave. The liturgical calendar would likely make little sense on any new planet. Days, months, and years could all be shorter or longer. A new planet may not be able to grow wheat and grapes. What then? On the positive side, I do think space travel might help solve one of the Catholic Church’s challenges. Think about this: Space Jesuits. That has a certain appeal. Perhaps recruitment will be less of an issue? After all more than 2,700 people have already applied for a one-way mission to Mars (...yes, I am aware of the award-winning 1996 novel, The Sparrow explores the idea of a “Space Jesuit”).

Science fiction novels and movies have rarely taken space, physics, or biology seriously. Perhaps because doing so would make for boring stories. Lightsabers are impossible. Traveling very near the speed of light would mean saying goodbye forever to anyone you ever knew. Interstellar (2014), which is released on DVD next week, is one of the first to take look at space travel with some realism (...although it does still include humans in wormholes, extra dimensions, etc). If you are a reader and have interest in the subject I strongly suggest Claude A. Piantadosi’s very non-fiction, Mankind Beyond Earth (2012). I used Piantadosi’s book in a class on the history and future of human exploration in the Fall. It got me thinking about how unprepared the Catholic Church is for the transition to space that began in the 1960s (...following the call of the first Catholic U.S. President).

A hundred years ago the idea that an average person could or would take many trips on planes in their life seeing different parts of the world seemed like a silly fantasy. Now it is quite common. I believe my grandchildren (and I don't actually have any yet) will be as regular tourists in near-earth space as we are to places around the world by plane. That is a future that deserves some thought now. It took 10,000 years of civilization to put humans on the moon. Imagine what we will accomplish in the next 10,000 years. In the long run, we should recognize that we are perhaps the greatest “weed” this planet has ever known. Our brains make us the ultimate survivors. Even if it is not a necessity, we will likely come to explore beyond our solar system. I hope the Catholic Church is a part of that journey.

Family in space photo (from Ray Bradbury’s The Gift a Christmas story in space) courtesy of James Vaughan.


Portraits of Lost (and Found) Identities

Many Catholics (and others) will express some ancestral national pride on St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day this week. More than 80% of Ireland and Italy’s populations are Catholic. Yet few may realize that most Americans who say their family is of Irish or Italian ancestry are not Catholic. In the just released 2014 General Social Survey (highlighted in the previous post) only 27% of Irish-Americans (more) self-identified as Catholic and only 48% of Italian Americans said their religion was Catholic (more). Those percentages have fallen over time.

Some things appear to get lost in translation through immigration and generational replacement. A Pew study recently highlighted the declining percentage of Hispanics who self-identify as Catholic. The largest national sub-group among this population has Mexican roots. Today, more than nine in ten adults who are of Italian (93%) or Irish (98%) ancestry were born in the United States. Only 50% of those of Mexican ancestry were born here. Most of Italian and Irish ancestry don’t have an immigration experience that they can personally recall whereas many of those of Mexican ancestry do.

As it stands now, 67% of those of Mexican ancestry self-identify as Catholic. I expect that percentage to continue to fall and converge toward other groups who came here from heavily Catholic countries. You can’t control or predict how children in the pluralism of the United States will see themselves or choose to live.

This turns out to be one statistical result and prediction that I can provide a useful anecdote for. I was recently watching the PBS documentary series The Italian Americans. It detailed FDR’s decision during World War II to brand non-citizen Italian immigrants as “Enemy Aliens,” placing some in internment camps with Executive Order 9066. Before she married and became a Gray, my grandma had an Italian last name. She had an enormous influence on my life. She is why I am Catholic ( well as the influence of my dad, her son). After watching the documentary I wanted to look back at my grandmother and her family during the period of “Enemy Aliens.” The Census has a 72-year rule. It won’t release anything with identifying information until 72 years after it is collected. This is meant to protect people’s privacy. I found my grandmother in the Census in 1920, 1930, and 1940 as well as fragments from other official documents accessed from FamilySearch (“A service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”).

 With my grandma in the early 1990s

Before looking at the Census I knew my great grandfather was from Milan. He was a twin and their restaurant could only support one family. He left the restaurant to his brother and came to America. He worked for wineries in southern California. The Census and other documents confirmed the stories I had grown up with. What I didn’t know was that he did not immigrate directly to the United States. His wife, my great grandmother, was from Mexico. Their five children were all born in Mexico and spoke Spanish. A sixth child, born in 1920, has her birthplace listed as California. My grandma was the first citizen in her family. My great grandfather had spent more than a decade living and starting a family in Mexico. I found border records indicating that he crossed with his family in 1917 at Nogales. This is all a family history my grandmother had never mentioned to me before she passed away. It was just a lost identity.

So now I have to ask myself, am I Hispanic? That’s an odd question to first ponder in your 40s. We assume people will maintain the identities of their parents. Sometimes they don’t. When people immigrate here they don’t always bring everything with them. In my family the one thing that did survive was our faith. The Catholicism rooted in Italy and Mexico lives on in my kids but I don’t know Spanish or Italian. I love the foods of both cultures but it’s just pasta sauce to me, not Sunday gravy. When I’ve completed the Census I’ve always noted by race as “white” and my ethnicity as “non-Hispanic.” I now have to wonder how I should respond for the 2020 Census based on what I’ve learned from the 1920 Census.

Thinking back to the documentary it is interesting that in 1920 and 1930 my great grandparents went by their birth names, Giovanni and Juana. By 1940, when “Enemy Aliens” entered the lexicon they had been transformed into John and Jennie speaking English in suburbia. The politics surrounding immigrants in the 1940s may have had much to do with their transformation.

If you did not experience your family’s immigration to this country yourself I think it can be very powerful thing to see it on paper. I have yet to find any evidence of Irish ancestry in my family. Then again that is something everyone acquires on St. Patrick’s Day in the United States. I’ll celebrate my authentic heritage Thursday and now on December 12 as well.

Image of 1940 Census interviewer and respondent courtesy of The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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© 2009-2014 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.