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American Catholics: a social and political portrait.

America's Roman Catholic community is large, diverse, politically and culturally influential--and difficult to generalize about. The largest single religious grouping in the United States since 1850, Roman Catholics number at least 58 million. Those influenced by Catholicism probably number a good deal more; there has always been difficulty in determining religious statistics in the United States because of different standards for interpreting and defining church membership.

In terms of official parish membership, Catholics in 1990 numbered 53 million, or about 22 percent of the population, which has not changed since 1960. But national opinion polls and political exit polls consistently show the Catholic population at 28 percent. This discrepancy, according to sociologists and statisticians, may be due to offsetting factors: numerous Catholics, possibly as many as 14 million, are not practicing and do not participate in local congregations or contribute to the support of the church. But millions of others, who still continue to call themselves Catholics, do not register at local parishes for a variety of reasons. Differences in the way Catholics define themselves can be seen in a comparison of two national surveys (see chart).
 Catholic Population by State, 1990
 A Comparison of Two Surveys
 % Catholic % Catholic
 Church Religious
State Membership Identification
Alabama 3.4 4.5
Alaska 8.2 n/a
Arizona 17.9 23.9
Arkansas 3.1 4.9
California 24.0 28.9
Colorado 14.7 25.1
Connecticut 41.8 50.4
Delaware 17.5 26.4
District of Columbia 12.8 16.1
Florida 12.4 23.2
Georgia 3.2 6.3
Hawaii 21.0 n/a
Idaho 7.3 11.5
Illinois 31.6 33.1
Indiana 12.6 19.5
Iowa 18.7 21.5
Kansas 14.9 17.3
Kentucky 9.9 13.3
Louisiana 32.4 46.8
Maine 21.5 31.2
Maryland 17.4 24.9
Massachusetts 49.2 54.3
Michigan 25.2 29.2
Minnesota 25.4 29.2
Mississippi 3.7 7.0
Missouri 15.7 20.3
Montana 15.7 27.6
Nebraska 21.2 29.4
Nevada 13.1 23.9
New Hampshire 26.8 41.3
New Jersey 41.3 45.9
New Mexico 30.8 37.3
New York 40.5 44.3
North Carolina 2.3 5.9
North Dakota 27.1 30.1
Ohio 19.7 24.2
Oklahoma 4.6 8.0
Oregon 9.8 15.3
Pennsylvania 30.9 33.2
Rhode Island 63.1 61.7
South Carolina 2.3 5.7
South Dakota 20.7 25.7
Tennessee 2.8 4.7
Texas 21.0 23.2
Utah 3.8 6.0
Vermont 25.6 36.7
Virginia 6.2 12.2
Washington 10.8 19.0
West Virginia 6.1 5.9
Wisconsin 31.8 38.6
Wyoming 13.1 18.0
NATION 21.5 26.2


For historical reasons, Catholics are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, with pockets of traditional strength in Louisiana and New Mexico. New England and the Middle-Atlantic are the only regions where Catholics outnumber Protestants, though they are close in parts of the Midwest.

The Catholic growth rate has been modest in recent decades, barely keeping pace with the population increase. Among Protestants the same is true, though an internal readjustment has occurred as conservatives and evangelicals gained strength at the expense of mainline and liberal churches. Jews have declined somewhat as a percentage of all Americans, while the nonaffiliated and "other," primarily non-Christian, groups have increased.

Catholics are the most ethnically diverse of all U.S. religious groups. The largest number are now of Hispanic descent, while the Irish, who have traditionally dominated the U.S. hierarchy and clergy, are a close second.

Substantial numbers of Catholics of German, Italian, and Polish ancestry live throughout the United States, as do smaller numbers of Dutch, Belgian, French, Slovak, Lithuanian, and Czech Catholics. There are even plenty of Old South English Catholics in southern Maryland and the coastal regions of Dixie, as well as newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants.

Overcoming suspicion and occasional outbursts of nativist prejudice and discrimination, American Catholics have, since World War II, moved up the social and economic ladder. Far more are white collar than blue collar today. Sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley has charted the Catholic rise to main, stream, middle-class status in his many books and articles; Greeley found that Catholics achieved parity with Protestants in income in the 1960s and in education in the 1970s.

Catholics are far more likely to live in metropolitan areas than in rural areas and small towns. The National Survey of Religious Identification discovered that 84.5 percent of Catholics live in metropolitan areas, making them the most urban group except for Jews. There has been a shift from the cities to the suburbs, however. A generation ago, cities were Catholic strongholds; today, the suburbs hold the bulk of the Catholic population, while inner cities are much more likely to be black and Protestant.

Catholics are also younger than Protestants or Jews, the survey found. The Catholic median age is 40.1 compared to 44 for both Protestants and Jews. This survey also found that only 66 percent of Hispanic Americans are Catholic, a decline that is continuing as a result of fundamentalist Protestant proselytism. (Protestants are up from 18 percent to 25 per, cent among Hispanics.) About 9 percent of blacks are Catholic, a slight increase since 1960.

These social realities have contributed to considerable changes in the internal workings of American Catholicism and in the relationship between Catholics and those who adhere to other religions.

Catholic involvement and partnership with neighbors of other religious traditions have led to demands for the democratization of Catholic education and religious structures. Alliances have also developed across sectarian lines, as conservative Catholics have joined their Protestant and Jewish counterparts in such movements as the right-wing Empower America, while progressive and liberal Catholics have formed similar alliances with like-minded allies among Protestant, Jewish, and secular voters.

The questioning and probing of Catholic doctrines, beliefs, and life, styles that resulted from the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965 have also contributed to major shifts in Catholic opinion on internal questions of church discipline--such as divorce and marriage, birth control, and admission requirements for the priesthood--as well as on questions involving church influence on public policies.

Thus, over the past quarter century, a liberal majority has been building on issues once considered closed to debate. Not only do sizable majorities of Catholics favor birth control as public policy and as private choice, but the Catholic birth rate has become indistinguishable from that of the mainline Protestant churches. Only Hispanic Catholics (like black Protestants, Mormons, and fundamentalist white Protestants) have above-average birth rates; overall, the Catholic birth rate has declined considerably. Large majorities of Catholics believe the church should allow both remarriage after divorce and full participation in church ceremonies for divorced Catholics. The Catholic divorce rate has also risen and is only slightly lower than the Protestant divorce rate. Finally, a majority of Catholics favors a married clergy, and, during the past decade, support for the admission of women to the priesthood has risen from 40 percent to 50 percent.

Dismay over the pace of change has caused much internal confusion, though the church still retains 80 to 85 percent of those who are born in the faith. Many of these people are what Andrew Greeley has called "communal" Catholics--those who take some pride in their religious heritage but disagree vigorously with many of the church's official positions or practices. Disillusionment with the papal decision reaffirming the ban on "artificial" birth control in 1968 is the primary factor, Greeley argues, in church, attendance decline and in loss of revenue to the church. Catholics have reduced their giving to the church from 2 percent of their income a quarter century ago to 1 percent today (Protestant giving has remained steady at about 2 percent). This has resulted in the loss of billions of dollars to church coffers. Weekly attendance has also fallen, from 75 to 80 percent before the Council to 50 percent today. Most of the decline occurred from 1965 to 1975 and then leveled off; but instead of rebounding, as it has among evangelical Protestants, Catholic church attendance continues to inch downward. (Church attendance remains a significant factor in predicting individual opinion on many social and political issues for both Catholics and Protestants. Weekly attendance is highly correlated with more conservative political and social attitudes.) There has also been an enormous decline in parochial school attendance, from 5.5 million students in 1965 to about 2.5 million today. Increasing assimiliation and a preference for public education are major factors affecting the reduction in Catholic attendance at church-related schools.

Politically, Catholics are still more likely to be registered as Democrats than Republicans and to consider themselves Democratic voters, though less so than a generation ago. Democrats outnumber Republicans 91 to 49 among the large and diverse Catholic congressional contingent.

If generalizations can be made, Catholics are moderately liberal--more liberal than Protestants, less liberal than Jews and the religiously nonaffiliated. This is somewhat more likely to be the case on economic and foreign-policy questions than on social issues. But Catholics can be found all across the political spectrum. In Congress, Catholic liberal Democrats include Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, while conservative Republicans include Representatives Henry Hyde of Illinois and Bob Dornan of California. Conservative Democratic Catholics include Representative William O. Lipinski of Illinois, while liberal Republican Catholics include Representative Connie Morella of Maryland. Catholic Supreme Court justices have included staunch liberals and church-state separationists like William Brennan and ultraconservative reactionaries like Antonin Scalia. Similar patterns are to be found among state governors and legislatures.

There is one area in which Catholics--and Jews--have been grossly underrepresented: the U.S. presidency. Only one Catholic, John F. Kennedy, has served as the nation's chief executive, and no Catholics have served as vice, president.

In their 1987 book The American Catholic People, based upon years of survey data, Jim Castelli and George Gallup, jr., reveal that Catholics are less inclined than Protestants to support creationism in public schools or to believe that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God. Castelli and Gallup observe that "American Catholics are far more supportive of the public schools than anyone--certainly the church's leadership--previously believed. They rate them high and want government to spend more money on them." A survey conducted in the late 1980s by Library journal also found Catholics far more opposed to the censorship of films and books than Protestants. Only Jews, Episcopalians, and the religiously unaffiliated were more liberal.

On the subject of abortion, Catholic opinion has steadily grown more pro-choice, despite intense ecclesiastical attempts to create a unified anti-abortion posture on the part of the Catholic community. While the bishops and some lay people set in motion the original anti-abortion lobby in the early 1970s, the leadership of these groups has largely fallen into the hands of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.

Catholic opinion has become more tolerant of diversity, and there is some indication of Catholic weariness with the abortion issue. Exit polls from the 1988 and 1992 elections show that Catholics are less likely than "born-again" Protestants to cite abortion as a major issue in determining their presidential or congressional votes. Polls consistently show that Catholics are opposed to making abortion illegal; that most are moderately pro-choice; that some favor restrictions on access; and that, like most Americans, many are ambivalent about the availability of abortion in modern life.

At the same time, Catholic women have had abortions in relatively large numbers, despite severe church penalties for doing so. Data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute a few years ago showed that the Catholic abortion rate was higher than the Protestant and Jewish rates. More recent data from Greeley's National Opinion Research Center suggest that the Catholic rate is about the same as the Protestant rate, higher than that of Jewish women, and lower than that of women who are religiously nonaffiliated.

Some Catholic members of Congress are strongly pro-choice and support the positions enunciated by the independent group, Catholics for a Free Choice. The last Catholic vice-presidential candidate, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, took this position in the face of strong church opposition in 1984.

While Catholic members of Congress were somewhat less pro-choice than average during the 1970s and 1980s, since 1980 they have moved in a pro-choice direction. In 1993, over 60 percent of the Catholics in Congress supported President Clinton's removal of the gag rule, opposed parental-notification requirements, and favored fetal-tissue research.

In the 1992 presidential election, Catholics voted for Clinton 44 percent to 36 percent over Bush, with 20 percent choosing Perot. In contrast, white Protestants favored Bush 46 percent to 33 percent, with 21 percent for Perot. Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants gave Bush 59 percent, Clinton 25 percent, and Perot 16 percent. Without the Catholic vote, Clinton may not have won or would have just barely squeaked through to victory.

One example of the importance of Catholic voters is in the large and pivotal state of Pennsylvania, which has a stable, aging, and socially conservative population. In the Keystone State, Catholics are more anti-abortion than elsewhere, Protestants are unusually conservative, and the popular governor Bob Casey, who won 68 percent of the vote in 1990, is devoted to an anti-abortion position so intense that he refused to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket. Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua appeared with George Bush at two campaign events, signaling his support for the beleaguered chief executive. How did Pennsylvania's Catholic voters respond? They gave Clinton a whopping 18-point margin over Bush (unlike Protestant voters, who went strongly for Bush). Heavily Catholic suburbs in Delaware County--a Philadelphia suburb in Bevilacqua's archdiocese--voted Democrat for the first time since 1964. In the city of Philadelphia itself, the five most heavy Catholic wards voted for Clinton 53 percent to 33 percent (14 percent for Perot), after favoring Bush 54 percent to 46 percent four years earlier. Clinton's largest gains in Philadelphia came from Catholic middle-income areas, where many families send their children to parochial schools. In the substantially Catholic Ward 21, Clinton beat Bush by 12 points, even exceeding Lyndon Johnson's 1964 margin.

These results are not too surprising; Catholic voters have long rejected sectarianism and attempts at religion-based politics. As Castelli and Gallup concluded in The American Catholic People: "American Catholics of all political persuasions do not want their bishops to appear even remotely to be telling them how to vote."

Catholics in US. Society: A Book Lid for Your Interest

Barber, Hugh R. K. 1993. A Crisis of Conscience, Birch Lone. A distinguished

physician speaks eloquently for reform of church structures and internal

disciplines relating to divorce, birth control, abortion, celibacy, and o host

of other issues. Bianchi, Eugene C., and Reuther, Rosemary Radford. 1992. A Democratic

Catholic Church, Crossroad. A volume of 13 stimulating essays on reform

and restructuring in the Catholic community, calling for conciliarity,

pluralism, and accountability. Byrnes, Timothy A. 1991. Catholic Bishops and American Politics, Princeton University

Press. An exploration of the changing role of the Catholic bishops

in the American political process. Byrnes, Timothy A., and Segers, Mary C. (editors). 1993. The Catholic Church

and the Politics of Abortion. Westview Press. A collection of essays by

political scientists who explore the impact of official Catholic agencies

on abortion laws in seven states (NJ, FL, NY, IL, PA, LA, CT). Curran, Charles E. 1991. Catholic Higher Education, Theology, and Academic

Freedom. University of Notre Dame Press. An analysis of tensions between

Vatican regulations, Catholic academia, and U.S. government funding

of private colleges, Ferraro, Barbara, and Hussey, Patricia. 1990. No Turning Back. Poseidon Press.

Two eloquent nuns recount their struggles over religious freedom, conscience,

and abortion in the context of feminist theology and the

integrity of the human person, Fuchs, Lawrence H, 1967. John F. Kennedy and American Catholicism. Meredith

Press. A profound essay on the meaning of Kennedy's election and

presidency, particularly its impact on interfaith relations. Gallup, George, Jr., and Castelli, Jim, 1987. The American Catholic People-Their

Beliefs, Practices, and Values. Doubleday. An indispensable study

of Gallup public opinion survey data on U.S. Catholics and their fundamental

outlooks. Greeley, Andrew. 1991, Religious Change in America Harvard University Press.

A close examination of survey data relating to religious belief and practice

in America since World War II. Kennedy, Eugene. 1988. Tomorrow's Catholics-Yesterday's Church: The Two

Cultures of American Catholicism, Harper and Row. A discussion of the

widening gop between the governed and their governors within Catholicism,

and their conflicting visions of the future. Lader, Lawrence. 1987. Politics, Power, and the Church, Macmillan. A hard-hitting

update of the Blanshard thesis by one of America's most

knowledgeable church-state observers. Lernoux, Penny. 1989. People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism.

Viking. A kaleidoscopic view of trends within Catholicism and a brilliant

study of the politics of the Vatican. McBrien, Richard. 1992, Report on the Church. Harper. A quarter of a century

of essays extolling the values and virtues of progressive Catholicism. Reese, Thomas J. 1989. Archbishop: Inside the Power Structures of the

American Catholic Church. Harper and Row. A study of the political

power, public policies, and internal decision-making processes of

America's largest Roman Catholic administrative units. Sweeney, Terrance, 1991. A Church Divided: The Vatican Versus American

Catholics, Prometheus Books. An exploration of liberal trends in U.S.

Catholicism, which may produce schism.
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Author:Menendez, Albert J.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:2918
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