The surprise decision by 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI to resign his post effective later this month has brought our attention back to the body of those in this country who identify their religion as Catholic.
The basic facts are clear. About 23 percent of American adults are Catholics, based on self-reports of the religious identity of more than 353,000 Americans Gallup interviewed in 2012. This Catholic percentage has remained remarkably constant over the years, a stability that largely has resulted from the growth in Hispanic Catholics.
The changing racial and ethnic composition of their numbers highlights a key issue for American Catholics - perhaps germane as the College of Cardinals selects the new pope. The Catholic population in the U.S. is more than twice as likely to be Hispanic as the overall adult population, much less likely to be black, and skewed so heavily Hispanic among younger Catholics that the whole complexion of the church is going to continue to change in the decades ahead.
But first let me point out that taken as a whole, Catholics are remarkably -- and I mean really remarkably -- average across major demographic categories other than race. The body of Catholics in this country is a perfect microcosm of the American population on many demographic variables.
Let's take age as a good example: 19 percent of adult Catholics are between 18 and 29, compared with 21 percent of the overall U.S. population; 36 percent are 30 to 49, compared with 34 percent; 27 percent are 50 to 64, compared with 26 percent; and 18 percent are 65+, compared with 19 percent of the overall population.
Education? Thirteen percent of Catholics have postgraduate education, compared with 13 percent of the total population. In other words, exactly the same. Seventeen percent of Catholics are college graduates without postgraduate education, compared with 17 percent of the population. Catholics are slightly bottom-heavy on the educational spectrum, skewing modestly more toward a higher percentage with high school education or less (43 percent), compared to 39 percent in the U.S. adult population.
About 19 percent of Catholics have incomes of $90,000 a year or more, compared with an almost identical 18% of the U.S. population. And at the other end of the income range, only one point separates the percentage of Catholics who have incomes under $24,000 a year and the same group in the overall U.S. population.
Politically, Catholics today are also very much like the U.S. population -- at least in terms of party identification. The Catholic adult population in 2012 identified as 25 percent Republican, 36 percent independent, and 30 percent Democratic. The overall population in 2012 was 26 percent Republican, 35 percent independent, and 30 percent Democratic. Exit poll data also show that Catholics voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a margin similar to that of the overall electorate.
But the big difference, as I indicated above, comes when we look at race and ethnicity. Overall, 29 percent of adult Catholics in this country identify their ethnic background as Hispanic, compared with 13 percent in our national adult sample for all of 2012. Only 3 percent of Catholics are black, compared with 11 percent in our national adult sample in 2012.
A whopping 45 percent of Catholics in this country who are 18 to 29 are Hispanic, a number that drops steadily as we move to successively older age groups. Among Catholics aged 65 and older, only 12 percent are Hispanic.
To be sure, this younger age skew of Hispanics mirrors the U.S. population, in which the percentage of Hispanics goes from 21 percent among all Americans aged 18 to 29, down to 5 percent among those 65 and older. But at each age point, the percentage of Catholics who are Hispanic is significantly above the U.S. average. In fact, the difference in terms of percentage Hispanic Catholic and percentage Hispanic U.S. adult population diminishes as age increases, from 24 points among those 18 to 29, down to seven points among those 65 and older. In other words, the Hispanic skew in the young Catholic population is more pronounced than the Hispanic skew in the older Catholic population.
The fact that so many young Catholics are Hispanic suggests that an increasing percentage of Catholics overall will be Hispanic as the population ages. As older Catholics die off and younger Catholics come along, assuming some stability in religious identification patterns, Hispanics may approach half the Catholic population.
These trends, of course, are the same ones that worry the Republican Party, which sees a looming problem ahead as the Hispanic percentage of the overall population grows -- given that Hispanics to this point have been well below average in terms of identifying as Republican and voting for GOP candidates.
Along these lines, it is worth noting that the overall similarity in the party identification of Catholics and the party identification of the general population masks a major distinction between Hispanic Catholics and Non-Hispanic white Catholics. Only 11 percent of Hispanic Catholics identify as Republicans (the rest are 45 percent independent and 32 percent Democratic), whereas 32 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics identify as Republicans.
Basically, we find two different worlds of Catholics in the U.S. population. There is the aging, shrinking body of white Catholics, and the young, growing body of Hispanic Catholics. The latter group is going to increase as a percentage of the Catholic population in the years ahead. I'm no expert on the selection of a pope, but from the American Catholic perspective, a Hispanic pontiff would seemingly play well to the demographic realities of the U.S. Catholic population.