How Many Catholics Are There in the United States?

During their meeting last [month], the Catholic bishops of the United States heard two reports about the state of religious groups in our country, with particular application to the numerical status of Catholics in the general population.About 10 percent of believers in the United States change their religion sometime in the course of their lifetime. The number is slightly above that percentage for Protestants and slightly below the same percentage for Catholics. The number of Jews who convert to another religion is very small, and percentages vary for other non-Christians.

Self-identified Catholics

About 24 percent of Americans call themselves Catholics today, but about 30 percent of Americans would have been brought up in the Catholic faith. The percentage of Americans who call themselves Catholics has remained steady at about 25 percent for over 50 years, but that is because those born Catholic here who leave the church are replaced by Catholic immigrants and by converts to Catholicism. About half of former Catholics join some form of Protestant faith community, usually evangelical; the other half are mostly unaffiliated with any religion, often calling themselves spiritual but not religious.

The numbers given by researchers take on a face when we look at the level of practice in almost every Catholic family today. The level of practice of the faith varies by generation. Those born before 1943, the pre-Vatican II generation, go to Mass regularly, with only 21 percent of that generation saying they participate in the Mass rarely or never. Of those born between 1943 and 1960, the Vatican II generation, 38 percent say they almost never attend Mass. The percentages of those who rarely go to Mass go back down to about 30 percent for those born between 1960 and 1981, the post-Vatican II generation, and the numbers improve a bit more for the so-called Millennial generation, born after 1981.

Whatever the reasons Catholics might have for not practicing the faith, there are some definite indicators that mark the lives of those who do practice. Sacramental practice is most steady for baptism and Holy Communion, more precarious when the numbers for penance and confirmation are examined, and truly alarming when considering the statistics for marriage in the church. Thirty-seven percent of baptized Catholics who report that they are married are not living in a sacramental marriage. Another indicator for regular practice of the faith is Catholic schooling. Those who are educated in the faith in elementary or secondary school have higher levels of practice than other Catholics. Evidently, practice of the faith is more habitual in their lives.

Church-identified Catholics

Numbers can indicate behavior and record levels of active participation, but it is harder to ascertain the dynamics of grace. The church is not a spiritual club; she has received her identity from Christ. There are two basic components of Catholic identity: holding the apostolic faith and living under apostolic governance.

The contents of the faith, the truths that come to us from the apostles, have been clarified over the centuries and are interpreted in the face of challenges to that faith from generation to generation. While anything can be questioned and discussed, a Catholic cannot simply deny something essential to the church’s faith and still claim to be Catholic. The church lives by the Lord’s promise to guard her in faith until he returns in glory, and she relies upon the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep her in truth.

The traditional term for those who deny part of the apostolic faith is heretic. That’s not a term generally used in polite company, but it simply means someone who has taken part of the faith and rejected another part of it. In America, we often use our own experience to decide what we will accept, to determine what is right or wrong, true or false. Consequently, American religion is often based primarily on personal spiritual experience. Some churches that show rapid growth are based uniquely on personal spiritual experience. Good though such experience might be, it’s not complete unless itself based on the truths revealed in the history of God’s actions to save the whole world.

The second component of Catholic identity is living in communion with the successors of the apostles. Those who separate themselves from visible unity with the church’s pastors are traditionally called schismatic, another term no longer in popular usage. The visible unity of the church under the apostles and their successors in the episcopal college is challenged in every generation by those who want to live the faith on their own terms rather than Christ’s. If faith requires a surrender of one’s mind to the truths God has revealed, communion requires a surrender of one’s will to those whom Christ has appointed to govern the church. Surrender of mind and will is always hard unless motivated by love.

How many Catholics are there in our country? Not the number God wants, but only God knows the number for sure. What God asks of us each day is to examine our faith and our lives and pray for the grace of conversion. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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