New Insights on the US Catholic Population

The conclave of the College of Cardinals in Vatican City began work today on the process of selecting the next pope. There are over one billion Catholics around the world. In the U.S., about 23 percent of the adult population is Catholic, based on analyses of over Gallup 360,000 interviews conducted between January 2012 and January 2013.

Catholics are not distributed randomly across the 50 states of the union. There is, in fact, quite a range of Catholic representation across the country.

Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut are the most Catholic states in the country, figured on a percentage basis, with between 42 percent and 44 percent of residents identifying as Catholic (among adults age 18 or older) in each. Other states with relatively higher representation of Catholics (more than 30 percent) include New York, New Hampshire, California, Wisconsin, and New Mexico.

Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama are the least Catholic states in the country, with six to seven percent identifying as Catholic in each. Other states with low (below 10 percent) Catholic representations are mostly in the South, with the exception of Utah, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.

The two states that are closest to the national average, in terms of the percentage who identify as Catholic, are Michigan and North Dakota, both within about half a percentage point of the overall mean for the country as a whole.

Catholics, at this particular point in U.S. history, are less religious than Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians in this country. This conclusion comes from the same very large database of interviews conducted between January 2012 and January 2013. The data show that 43 percent of Catholics are "highly religious" compared to 51 percent of Protestants. That hasn't always been the case. In previous decades, Catholics were more religious than Protestants.

The data from January 2012 through January 2013 show that about 29 percent of adult Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic. This percentage identifying as Catholic varies widely by age. About 45 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18-29 are Hispanic. This Hispanic percentage drops to 36 percent among those aged 30-49 years, to 19 percent among those aged 50-64, and down to only 11 percent among those Catholics who are 65 years and older.

These demographic facts of life, of course, suggest that the Catholic population in the United States will become increasingly Hispanic in the years to come as older Catholics die, and younger, more Hispanic Catholics grow older and replace them.

At the same time, recent analysis shows that while a big percentage of younger Catholics are Hispanic, a lower percentage of younger Hispanics than older Hispanics are Catholic. The percentage of Hispanics who are Protestant stays constant across age groups.

Younger Hispanics are more likely to have no religious identity. But, because Protestantism is relatively constant across age groups, the bottom line is that the ratio of young Hispanics who are Protestant versus Catholic is higher among younger Hispanics than among older Hispanics. 
This suggests the projected increase in the percentage of Catholics who are Hispanic could be mitigated by a tendency for younger Hispanics to be or to become Protestant. We will have to monitor this across time to see what develops.

All in all, the U.S. Catholic population is, at this point, less religious than the roughly half of the U.S. population that is Christian but not Catholic, and the U.S. Catholic population is now skewing very Hispanic among its younger cohort. What impact the new pope will have on these trends remains to be seen. Obviously an American or a Hispanic pope might affect the nation's Catholics differently than the selection of a more traditional pope from the European continent.

Click here to see a table of Religious Preference Among U.S. Hispanics, by age.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.