Pew Forum Survey and Immigration

April 2, 2008

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly


            American Catholics now have a special reason to be pro-immigration. It is keeping our Church afloat.

            If it were not for recent immigrants to this country, especially from Latin America, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would be in a steep decline.

            That is what the data shows in a massive survey of the religious affiliation done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The study is called the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008”.

            It is the largest study of its type ever done. They interviewed 35,000 Americans over the age of 18 about their religious affiliation. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. They asked more than 60 questions to get a complete picture.

            The Survey shows that Americans are religiously restless. Many Americans change religions in their lifetime.  Forty-four percent (44%) of American adults have switched religious affiliation from their childhood affiliation.

            The fastest growing segment of the population is religiously “unaffiliated.” They are now 16 % of all Americans (up from 7% 30 years ago).

            The biggest looser in the American religious landscape is the Catholic Church. According to the Pew Forum, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net loss as a result of affiliation changes.

            “While nearly one in three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one in four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants nearly two to one (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant).”

            This means that about 30 million Americans (10 % of all Americans) have fallen away from the Church.

            Where have they gone? Mostly to Evangelical churches. Independent evangelicals are now the largest religious group in America, at 26.3%. Some evangelical churches report that one in four of their members are ex-Catholics. In my own area, the pastors of the two largest Evangelical churches are ex-Catholic seminarians.

            The picture is not all bleak. Catholics have the largest number of converts of any church in America (mostly as a result of marriage). About 2.6% of all adult Americans have converted to Catholicism. This is a net gain of 7.5 million Catholics and cuts our losses from 30 million to about 22.5 million.

            So thank God for the immigrants in general and the Latinos in particular.

            According to the Survey, nearly half of all immigrants are Catholics.

            Among Latinos, (native born and immigrant) about 65% are Catholics. Younger Latinos (under age 30) are 45% Catholic, while older Latinos (over age 70) are 85% Catholic.

            What does this Religious Landscape Survey mean for ministry in our Church? It tells me that immigration is saving the Catholic Church in the U.S. We should support it, especially from Latin America.

            This has implications for ministry.  

            We should minister to these new arrivals as we always have ministered to new arrivals in the past. We should reach out to them in their own language and their own folkways. All priests, deacons and seminarians should learn the language and the culture of immigrant groups, especially Latinos.

            We should support their needs. We should be in favor of family reunification. We should support politicians who are willing to regularize their legal status. We should favor keeping the gates of immigration open to new arrivals. It is good for America as a whole.

            A hundred years ago the Catholic Church in the U.S.A. was an immigrant church.   It still is, despite the fact that many of us have moved to the suburbs.

            We should welcome new immigrants and should not turn our backs on our own.