U.S. Catholic population shows growth, trends southward

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The Catholic population in the United States has grown by about 2 million people in 10 years. With nearly 62 million people, it continues to constitute the largest religious body in 36 U.S. states, according to the latest religion-focused survey of America’s religious congregations.

Over the last decade, many Catholics, the survey found, have moved to the South.

“Perhaps the most notable changes were by region,” Clifford Grammich, a political scientist involved in the U.S. Religion Census, told CNA Dec. 5.

“Fifty years ago, 71% of U.S. Catholics were in the Northeast and Midwest; in 2020, 45% were. And the South now has more Catholics than any other region. I was surprised to see there are now more Catholics than Southern Baptists in Missouri and Virginia.”

The U.S. Religion Census is conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies every 10 years. Its latest report was released last month.

Its 2020 survey reported that there were 61.9 million Catholics in the U.S., about 18.7% of the population. The survey identified 372 religious bodies with more than 356,000 congregations and 161.4 million adherents in the United States. With a population of 331.4 million Americans, that would mean 48.7% of the country is a member of a religious congregation. While other surveys group Americans by how they self-identify, researchers for the religion census focused on counting people who have some connection with a religious congregation.

While Protestants collectively outnumber Catholics in the U.S, the researchers of the U.S. Religion Census viewed various Protestant bodies as their own denominational groups, not collectively. According to this categorization, Catholics are the single-largest religious group in the U.S. There are about three times as many Catholics as nondenominational Christians or Southern Baptists, the next two largest groups.

Despite being the largest religious group, Catholics have the fourth-most congregations of all religious bodies. The survey identified 19,405 Catholic congregations. The number of Catholic congregations is the lowest the religion census has found in more than 50 years.

According to Grammich, the decline in congregation numbers reflects consolidation in the Church. Grammich, who authored a report focused on the 2020 survey’s Catholic findings, is an associate of the Glenmary Research Center. The center provides research for the Glenmary Home Missioners, a Catholic society of priests and religious brothers who focus on serving the people of Appalachia and the South.

Grammich told CNA he was not surprised to find that the Catholic population remains at around 60 million, about the same since 2000.

The 2010 edition of the religion census found 58.9 million Catholics affiliated with 20,589 congregations. The population figure was a decrease of 5% from the 2000 census results, which reported 62 million Catholic adherents, though this change in part reflected differences in methodology.

For the purposes of the 2020 census, a Catholic “congregation” means a parish, mission, or other site with regularly scheduled public Mass at least six months of the year. A Catholic “adherent” is an individual “associated with a Catholic church in some way.”

Researchers focused on the proportion of the population who self-described as Catholic and said they attended religious services “more frequently than ‘never.’” Other surveys indicate millions of people self-identify as Catholics but also say they never attend religious services.

Researchers drew on sources such as diocesan data, which includes the figures in the Official Catholic Directory. They also drew on vital statistics, sacramental statistics, and survey statistics from sources such as the Pew Forum. The quality and completeness of diocesan data can vary greatly, and data collection was made more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This survey reports the lowest number of Catholics compared with other recent surveys. By comparison, the 2018 National Opinion Research Center General Social Survey reported 76.6 million Catholics, about 23% of the U.S. population, while the Official Catholic Directory says there are about 67.6 million Catholics in the U.S.

The Catholic Church has been the single-largest religious body in the U.S. for more than a century. The average number of adherents per congregation is 3,000 for Catholics, unusually high compared with other groups. No other group had as many as 2,000 adherents per congregation, and only five others had as many as 1,000.

Large Catholic congregations are especially common in the West, where there are 4,700 Catholics per congregation.

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Catholics are overrepresented in urban locations and underrepresented in rural areas. They also are the largest religious body in 36 U.S. states. Southern Baptists comprise the largest religious body in nine states in the U.S. South. Nondenominational Christians predominate in Alaska, Washington state, and West Virginia, while adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, predominate in Idaho and Utah.

Unlike in 2010, Catholics no longer comprise the largest body of religious adherents in Alaska and Washington state. However, they have become the largest religious body in two other states, Missouri and Virginia.

At the county level, Catholics are most prevalent mainly in New Mexico and in Texas along the Rio Grande. There is at least one Catholic congregation in 2,961 U.S. counties, a feat second only to the United Methodists.

The religion census reported on other Christian denominations and religious groups. It found almost 21.1 million nondenominational Christians in more than 44,000 congregations, 17.6 million Southern Baptist adherents in more than 51,000 congregations, and 8 million United Methodists in 30,000 congregations.

United Methodist numbers could decline significantly due to changing circumstances. Many American United Methodists have rejected communion with global Methodism and deny historic Christian teaching on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and sexual ethics. Last weekend, hundreds of congregations in Texas alone voted to disaffiliate with United Methodism. Many are expected to join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination.

As for other religious bodies, the religion census reported 6.7 million Latter-day Saint adherents in 14,000 congregations and an estimated 4.4 million Muslims in 2,700 congregations.

The top 10 largest religious bodies include several million other Americans who are adherents, respectively, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the predominantly African American National Missionary Baptist Convention.

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Other Christian and non-Christian minorities did not fall within the top 10 largest religious bodies. Among other non-Christian groups, the census counted one Baha’i group, three Buddhist groups, three Hindu groups, and four Jewish groups.

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