This week the Catholic church convened its extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. The goal is to discuss modern family life, a conversation that is proving to be more open than at the past synods. But how have American Catholic families and households changed? Here are five graphs showing four decades of changes (and some consistencies) using data from the General Social Survey.
Up first: the decline of marriage. In the 1970s, three-out-of-four Catholic adults were married. Today, the percentage of Catholics who are married is hovering just about 50 percent. Most of this decline occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when family law changed making divorce easier. But there’s more to the story, as we see in the next graph.
The decline in marriage that we saw in the first graph didn’t cut across all types of marriages. The decline in marriages was really a decline in marriages with children. In the 1975, half of Catholics were married with children. Today, only one-fourth of Catholics are married with children. During this same time, the percentage of Catholics who are married without children has actually increased.
As marriages with children has declined, the percentage of Catholics who are single has doubled, with nearly all of this jump coming from single parents. Some of these are mothers who are not marrying their child’s father (as they would have in earlier decades); others are parents who are divorced.
We also see the emergence of cohabitation as a significant type of household. Four decades ago, the share of Catholics who were cohabiting was little more than a rounding error. Today, one-in-twenty Catholics are living with their significant other.
Divorce among Catholics was once rare; it is now common. We show the divorce rate among Catholics. This rate is the percentage of Catholics who have been married who have also divorced. In the 1970s, less than 10 percent of Catholics who had married were ever divorced. This doubled by the 1980s. The divorce rate has since stabilized. The divorce rate among Catholics has remained steady at about 25 percent.
Some things haven’t changed so much. One is the percentage of Catholics who are married to a Catholic, which has stayed remarkably consistent over the time period. Three out of four marriages then and now are between two Catholics.
The average number of children among Catholics has waxed and waned (or more accurately waned and then waxed). The graph presents two lines that represent two ways of counting children, both of which show the same pattern. The blue line is the average number of children for all Catholics; the red line is the average number for Catholic parents (which ignores anyone without children). Focusing on Catholic parents only: in the 1970s, a Catholic parent had three children. By the 1990s, this dropped to 2.5 children. Jokes about the half-kid aside, this drop is not due to more Catholics not having children; for both parents and all Catholics, there was a reduction. Over the past decade or two, the average number of children has stabilized or has even grown slightly. Today, the typical Catholic parent has two or three children.