Catholic to Catholic-ish: 45 percent in US feel connected to the faith

American Catholics increasingly say they -- not church leaders -- are the final arbiters of what is morally right or wrong on sexual morality.

(RNS) Sam Clark wasn’t reared as a Catholic. He never converted, either.

Yet Clark, 50, of Carson City, Mich., likes Pope Francis — “the most ecumenical pope in my lifetime” — and the church’s teachings also appeal to Clark, who has many Catholic relatives and friends.

Like 45 percent of U.S. adults, he’s “Catholic-connected,” according to an innovative look at the spectrum of American Catholicism that Pope Francis will encounter this month on his first U.S. visit.

Nearly Half of U.S. Adults Have Close Connection to Catholicism. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Nearly Half of U.S. Adults Have Close Connection to Catholicism. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center. Numbers adjusted for rounding.

A new Pew Research survey released Wednesday (Sept. 2) goes beyond the standard tally of how many people say their religious identity is Catholic. It asks many original questions that  Pew has not studied before.

The survey of 5,122 U.S. adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics, finds that the church’s share of the religious marketplace is down from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in the new survey, conducted in May and June of 2015. Yet it also finds that the warm, engaging pontiff may find fertile ground for his message of faith.

READ: Catholics love their celebrity pope and most — not all — of his priorities

Pew found that 8 percent of non-Catholics, like Clark, feel an affinity to the Catholic church without affiliating.

And 9 percent of U.S. adults are “cultural Catholics” on Pew’s spectrum. They may have been reared Catholic but no longer identify themselves as Catholic. However, they still consider themselves at least partially Catholic by culture, ancestry, ethnicity or family tradition, the survey finds.

Take Robert Rivera, 43, of Aldine, Texas.

Rivera grew up in the Catholic Church, and his parents still worship at the parish where he was confirmed. “I absolutely have a sense of connection. It’s ingrained in how I was raised. The morality and ethics of the universal Gospel that it teaches are fantastic,” said Rivera.

But as Catholic as he feels, the son of Mexican immigrants said he also encountered rampant racism six days out of seven from the same people who were celebrating love and community on Sundays.

“Pope Francis is really cool — the most innovative and up-to-date pope ever. But I don’t want to go to a church that’s holy on Sunday and racist throughout the week,” Rivera said. So, today, he worships with his wife and children at nondenominational Protestant churches where no one is going to call him a “wetback,” he said.

Finally, Pew identified 9 percent of Americans as ex-Catholics — also known as  “lapsed” or “fallen-away” Catholics — who were reared in the church but have turned their backs on it.

READ: Pope Francis asks priests to forgive the sin of abortion

Count Jennifer Haslet-Phillips, 39, of Friday Harbor, Wash., among these.

Haslet-Phillips, who describes her religious identity today as “absolutely nothing,” says she nevertheless appreciates many of Pope Francis’ priorities.

“I think it’s really great that he has focused on the poor and on why people are poor; that he makes climate change and stewardship a Catholic priority. And he’s right to take a critical look at corporate capitalism,” she said. “But I am strongly negative about the church.”

The deal-breaker for her? She’s angry that the 2-year-old Catholic hospital in Friday Harbor doesn’t offer “a full range of reproductive health care and family planning” because it follows the Catholic bishops’ ethical directives.

So there will be no Catholic schools or summer camps for her three children. On Sunday mornings, “we go to the beach.”

For all her admiration, not even Pope Francis will change her mind about ever rejoining, she predicts. And Pew finds most ex-Catholics agree.

“We see enormous differences between cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at Pew.

“Cultural Catholics exhibit a significant degree of openness to the church,” he said, “whereas ex-Catholics have cut their ties. Asked directly, ‘Could you see yourself ever returning’ to a Catholic religious identity, 4 in 10 cultural Catholics say yes, but 90 percent of ex-Catholics say no,” Smith said.

Many cultural Catholics are still within reach of the church. One in 3 say they attend Mass once or twice a year or did some observance for Lent. And 4 in 10 say that if they were seriously ill, they would want to receive the anointing of the sick — one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments — from a priest.

READ: Christians lose ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of US religion

Graphic Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Graphic Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Still, Pew’s new survey shows that there is widespread disagreement within the church among those 20 percent who do call themselves Catholic. More than 60 percent want the church to change its policies on Communion (divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment shouldn’t receive; neither should couples who live together outside of marriage). Almost half (46 percent) think gay marriage should be recognized; an equal percentage say it should not.

On other important issues, the Pew survey found that most Catholics align church teachings they consider “essential” to what it means to be Catholic. Leading the list:

  • 68 percent cite a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • 62 percent list working to help the poor and needy.
  • 54 percent cite receiving the sacraments; 54 percent also cite devotion to Mary.   

Pew’s survey, conducted May 5-June 7 in English and Spanish, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points for the overall sample; 3.5 percentage points for Catholics.

The four major themes of the pope’s visit — social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, immigration and the value of the traditional family — will resonate with many, but not all, U.S. Catholics.

The new Pew study also finds that only a minority see addressing climate change (29 percent) or opposing abortion (33 percent) as “essential” to their Catholic identity.

Catholics are evenly divided over whether it is sinful to spend money on luxuries without also giving to the poor. Neither do most see it as a sin to use energy without concern for the impact on the environment.

However, one Pew survey number should give Francis hope: 7 in 10 U.S. Catholics say they cannot ever imagine leaving the Catholic Church, no matter what.


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • It’s kind of funny that the Church our Lord Jesus established on this earth, is now looked at as just another alternative, when it is actually the fountain of grace. How do we know which Christian Church is that Church with all the Promises our Lord conferred upon her?:
    “[Andrew] first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Kephas, which translates Peter” (John 1:41-42).
    “[And Jesus said], ‘Blessed are you, Simon Son of John! … And I tell you, you are Peter [Kephas], and on this rock [Kepha] I will build my church, and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” Matt 16:13-21
    Note: Kepha[s] used in the underlying Greek.

  • For 65 years, I was connected to Catholicism but then I looked outside the box. What did I find? Catholicism like all religions has significant myths in both its history and theology. And now, I live happily outside the box free of the guilt trips and lies.

  • Greg1,

    As noted previously, both citations fail rigorous historic testing. The gospel writers whoever they were, were great writers of myths and semi-fiction just as were the Jewish scribes who invented Adam and Eve, the Exodus, Abraham, Moses, Noah and the “prophets”/fortune tellers.

  • It’s funny when atheists deride scripture as “myth”, as though the scriptures haven’t been interpreted as allegorical wisdom stories throughout church history.

    “Solo scriptura” literalism – which arose during the Reformation as a political tactic to subvert the authority of church tradition – is relatively recent aberration in the historic role of the Bible in the church. Unfortunately, its adherents tend to be as loud as they are dim.

  • Eeeh, I think the assertion Jesus Christ “established” the Catholic Church is at best fanciful rationalization for realpolitik games played by the Roman Emperor Constantine and his minions.

    I run into people who I call “Uber-Catholics” who think back in the Middle Ages when everybody had to be Catholic or else as something we need to get back to. In my view, that is a breaking of the Second Commandment viewing the RCC as a graven image. I don’t say that as a statement of anticatholicism; I’m only the second generation Methodist of Czech and German families who were Catholic. I was executor of my Great Aunt’s estate and coordinated her funeral with a wonderful young Czech-American priest from the rural Central Texas region where huge Catholic Churches dominate the prairie and oompah music, hot sausage, beer, and polkas on Sunday afternoon is their view of the good life. That’s fine but it’s not for everybody. There are no middle men or women between God and the…

  • There are many people who the church has but God does not have; and there are many people who God has which the Church does not have

  • The NT is not all myth. Rigorous historic testing results in ~20 % of the passages being historically authentic

  • Actually, they do not fail rigorous historical testing. The only issue is that the farther back you go, the less and less extant documents there are, but the ones we have are very clear, that the Early Church was Catholic. There really is no argument there. I like how the Seventh Day Adventists changed their tune time and again. First it was the Edict of Milan that was the supposed point where the Catholic Church went corrupt. Then when it was shown to them that the same Church existed right back to the turn of the Second Century, they decided that the Church was corrupted even before the death of the last Apostle John, in (AD 100). I hope you get the point. It is all silly. If Jeus renamed Simon,”Rock” in John 1:42, and then said he would build his Church upon the Peter the “Rock” (Matt 16:18-19), then just believe him. If Jesus promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church, then just believe him. That implies until he returns. It’s not that hard to…

  • Greg1,

    Again your citations fail for lack of attestations with John’s gospel lacking everything to be historically accurate including the a biography for the author.

  • Bernardo, your position is way out of the historical universe. The Gospels are quite reliable, and were written by their respective authors. Nobody in any age since the time of Christ would even take such a position. Hey, aren’t they looking for volunteers for that Mars mission? Might be right up your alley.

  • I am not Catholic, but the catholic (little c) Church was originally intended to be universal (hence, “catholic”) and the only Church. Unfortunately, the church now known as Catholic (big C) has asserted itself a Pope in the place of God, exactly what the Israelites wanted when they desired a king. I agree to a point with you that the same Christianity isn’t for everyone, but only in the sense that we are all called to different situations in life. We don’t all have the same trials, joys, burdens, etc., but we should all have the same goal and ultimate calling, to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings and glorify Him to the world as the Son of God. Many “denominations” have strayed from sound teaching and have taken teachers who will “tickle their ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Unfortunately, not all who claim to follow Christ actually are fully following Him.

  • Very, very thoughtful. I have one question though, and it may be that you mean exactly what I am saying. If they are of God, are they not a part of the Church (big C)? If you have full faith in God, then you are a part of the Church. Was this what you meant?

  • Overlooked in the details is that in 2007, 24% of Americans identified as Catholic. Its now 20%. Of those 20%, 39% attend Mass at least once a week i.e. only 8% of Americans attend Mass at least once a week. 6% identify as “cultural” Catholics, raised as Catholic or had Catholic parent. 9% identify a ex-Catholic, no longer identify as Catholic i.e. 15% of Americans are former Catholics.

  • Greg1,

    You might want to read Father Raymond Brown’s epic book on the NT to get a good idea as to the authors of the NT. Said book is approved by the RCC.