Does the American Catholic Church Have a Numbers Problem?

A new Pew report shows that Catholics have lost the most members as Americans change affiliation.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

A fascinating Pew report out today finds that most Americans have changed religious affiliation at least once and that within this dramatic religious churn, Roman Catholicism is the biggest loser. Four times as many Catholics are leaving the faith as are joining it, the study finds.

And yet an upbeat E-mail from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops landed in my inbox today, with this triumphant first sentence:

A Pew Forum poll on Americans and their religious affiliation finds Catholics have one of the highest retention rates, 68 percent, among Christian churches when it comes to carrying the Catholic faith into adulthood.

How could the American religious tradition that boasts one of the highest retention rates be losing the most members? Easy, says Pew: because Catholicism is attracting so few newcomers.

Catholics are leaving the faith at four times the rate that newcomers are joining. "Religious change is not simply a function of retention; it's a function of recruitment. It's both sides of the ledger," explains the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's Greg Smith. "In no other religious groups we looked at did we see this high a ratio people leaving versus joining."

And yet Catholics still account for just under a quarter of the population, as they have for many years. That's because the surge in Hispanic immigration has offset the steady decline of white Catholics. Roughly 2 in 3 Latino immigrants are Catholic, according to Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. He also notes that Hispanic fertility rates are higher than those of white Americans, ensuring more Latino Catholic growth in the United States.

These countervailing trends in American Catholicism raise a question: Does the American Catholic Church have a numbers problem? Or, facing an American demographic future that's much less white than today, is the church's complexion merely changing with the nation's?