BY JORDAN OTERO
Fewer American Catholics are identifying themselves as “strong” believers, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data provided by a leading monitor of American society.
The study, conducted in 2012 by the General Social Survey (GSS), found that about a quarter (27%) of American Catholics called themselves “strong” members of the Church, a percentage that is down more than 15 points since the mid-1980s. The number marks an all-time low in the 38 years that the GSS has been measuring the strength of religious identity.
John Bergsma, professor of theology at Franciscan University, said that two primary factors — “theological liberalism and dissent” — seem to be at work, and are evident in the survey results.
“There has been heavy attrition of Catholic faith and practice among Catholics of European ancestry in the U.S.,” he said. These two factors have “ravaged the Church, especially in her traditional strongholds like New York and New England, and also the generally more aggressive secular culture.”
The decline of U.S. Catholics is even starker when compared against Protestants, whose strength of religious identification has been rising in recent years; approximately half (54%) of American Protestants described their religious identity as “strong” last year.
Bergsma said that a “huge influx” of Catholic immigrants from Latin America has produced high numbers of self-identified Catholics in the United States. However, despite these rising numbers of self-proclaimed Catholics, many of these immigrants are Roman Catholic because of the influences of their culture.
“Church attendance is not high in many parts of Latin America to begin with,” said Bergsma. “Moreover, Latino Catholic immigrants often find it difficult to identify with, and become integrated into, local U.S. Catholic congregations. Therefore, many immigrants never develop a habit of regular Church attendance, and their level of Christian formation remains very low.”
According to the study, the gap between Protestants and Catholics and their strength of religious identity has widened in recent years. U.S. Catholics were roughly comparable to Protestants on the question of the strength of their religious identity between 1974 until the late 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, though, Protestants have consistently showed higher strength of religious identity than Catholics.
Bergsma pointed out that situations can change rapidly “for both good and ill,” but said that “in every case, the only answer is commit ourselves again to intense discipleship and aggressive apostolate.”
The GSS measures the strength of religious identification by levels of religious commitment, such as the frequency of attendance at worship services. In general, “strong” Catholics reported going to Mass more often than do Catholics as a whole, and “strong” Protestants say they attend church more often than do Protestants overall.