Whither goeth all of those former Catholics?

Sometimes, your GetReligionistas come across mainstream religion-news stories that leave us saying, “That was kind of good, but that left me wanting more.” As if that mixed message wasn’t confusing enough, the truth is that some of these stories may leave one of us “wanting more,” in a good sense, or “wanting more” in a bad sense. Some cause us to feel both ways at the same time.

In other words, some religion stories are good news-bad news propositions.

Take, for example, the new CNN online report that ran under the headline, “‘Recovering Catholics’ reveal spiritual journeys.”

There is much here to praise. For starters, this subject is very big, very current and very important — as illustrated by the following background material high in the report.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).

That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.

The story makes it pretty clear that, when Catholics leave the church, they often use different exit doors and they proceed to head in different directions, often for radically different reasons. That’s a very important point to make. Thus, readers are told:

Kathleen Cummings, associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, says that some people leave the Catholic Church after a defining event like the priest abuse scandals or because of a disagreement with the Church over social issues, but most leave because they feel their needs are not being met. …

Church supporters are urging wayward Catholics to return to the fold. For example, Catholics Come Home, a nonprofit lay organization formed in 1997, has been putting out the welcome mat via the media. The group has an interactive website www.Catholicscomehome.org and airs what it calls “evangomercials” on radio and television. The group says that since 2008 more than 350,000 people have “come home” to the Catholic Church through their campaign.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, says some worshipers who’ve returned to the Catholic Church report leaving because they had disagreements with church officials or had divorced and feared they wouldn’t be welcome. But, he says, the majority never really gave up on the Church.

This is all well and good. My problem with the report is that it essentially left the impression that most of these former Catholics head into other churches — especially independent evangelical flocks.

This may be true, but I suspect that it is not true. I know from following work in this field that the wider world of “ex-Catholics” includes other significant groups. There are, of course, some ex-Catholics who become, in effect, ex-Christians. There are others, and the story hints at this, who slide into the whole “spiritual, but not religious” crowd. There are Catholics who head to the theological left, into liberal mainline Protestant bodies — such as the Episcopal Church. Then there are plenty of Catholics who join evangelical Protestant groups.

The bottom line: I was left wanting to know if the experts, inside and outside the church, have any ideas about how many ex-Catholics go in each of these directions.

This is a rather important question, since — as the story properly notes — we are talking roughly 10 percent of the entire population of the United States. For example, if lots of these ex-Catholics are headed into oldline Protestant pews, we should be seeing a slower decline on the religious left or even a small rate of growth in some of those flocks.

Does anyone have any idea — even a rough idea — what percentage of ex-Catholics are headed where?

Just asking.

This was, I will say once again, a pretty interesting story. With two or three more paragraphs, with one or two more sources, if could have been much better. Is CNN up to doing a sequel?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    1) 31% of Americans are raised in the Catholic faith; 24% of Americans remain in the Catholic faith – that would be 7% loss right? Where does the 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics come from?

    2) I’d like to know how this retention rate compares to other religious groupings – let’s call them denominations for lack of a better term.

    3) Is that 24% Catholics the self-identified Catholics or the ones who are actively practicing their faith?

    4) The link to the CNN story doesn’t work.

  • NMH

    I think there have been some polls/stories that examine the trajectory some ex-Catholics take. I recall (but can’t remember from where, sorry) a story I read a year or so ago about the huge inroads Evangelicals were making in traditionally Catholic Latino communities, for example, which would explain where some of that particular ex-Catholic demographic may have ended up.

    Julia, this is the study, I believe, that gave us the 10% figure:


  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    I like that they linked to the actual survey summary, although I was a bit taken aback by the fact that it’s hundreds of pages and trying to find out where they got the numbers to which they were referring was a bit of work. The 24% number seems to come from p. 110 (where it is given as 23.9; also on p. 217), while the 31% number seems to come from page 256 (where it is given as 31.4). But as far as I can see, the survey doesn’t address retention, so, as Julia says, it’s unclear how everything else relates to these numbers; I take it there’s some sort of combination with other studies that aren’t mentioned. It would be nice if this connection were a bit more explicit.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Link is fixed. Thanks.

  • Julia

    Here’s some statistics on retention rates:
    Hindu 84%
    Jewish 76%
    Muslim 76%
    Greek Orthodox 73%
    Mormon 70%
    Catholic 68%
    Baptist 60%
    Lutheran 59%
    Penecostal 50%
    Buddist 49%
    Methodist 46%
    Anglican/Episc 45%
    Non-denominal 44%
    Reformed 42%
    Presbyterian 41%
    Nones 38%
    J Witness 37%
    Congregational 37%
    Holiness 32%
    Atheist 30%


    At the same site, the researchers said a neglected statistic was those who left the Catholic church and later came back. I’m not so alone as I thought.

    in the pews, on a typical weekend, you can expect that about 13% of the adults in attendance are reverts, which is equivalent to 2.3 million people. These individuals are a part of a larger 4.7 million adults in the United States who self-identify as a returned or revert Catholic.

  • Julia

    Same study by Georgetown – reverts are a big reason why the approximate percent of 25% Catholics is fairly stable. Immigration can’t account for all of it.

    In a previous post, we noted that the Catholic population could not maintain its approximate 25% U.S. population share by immigration alone as many argue (…given the Catholic retention rate and that only 2.6% of U.S. adults saying they converted to Catholicism as an adult). The math just does not work (…other important factors to complete this equation are the annual number of baptisms, Catholics leaving the U.S., and deaths of Catholics). Part of what is keeping the Catholic population percentage so steady is Catholic reverts. In a typical year, CARA estimates that there are approximately 168,000 people who were raised Catholic and left the faith (typically in their teens or early 20s) who come back.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Julia –

    I’m not a mathematician, but the 7 percentage points of decline represents about 21% of 31%, so I think that might be a better starting place to talk about decline. However, it’s really tricky to take any poll at a simple face value. I do agree with tmatt that it’s a big issue involving a lot of people, but anything about the Catholic Church involves a lot of people, and it’s seems to me that’s best kept in mind.

    As to the CNN article, I wasn’t hopeful seeing the headline. “Recovering Catholic” has always struck me as a snotty and self-righteous dig, but given that being Catholic gets in your bones, if you think it’s a malignant Faith, perhaps you are right to think you have something to recover from. However, it’s usually those gone secularist that I’ve heard use the phrase. And that’s what made this article interesting: it was those turned evangelical looking back to their roots and dissing the Church.

    A few years ago, my Baptist step-brother and I were laughing: he knows Catholics-turned-Baptist and I know (am) Baptist-turned-Catholic. It’s all where you stand. From my view, however, I’ve never heard a Catholic refer to his/herself as a “Recovering Baptist”. Go figure. Which also made the article interesting to me. Secularists I expect to diss the Church; fellow Christians, not so much.

    I do agree with tmatt that an article on where Catholics actually go when they leave the Church, but this isn’t that article. It hints at it, with the quote about Catholics who just get busy and drift away, but doesn’t really put enough into that to make me interested. Again, that’s probably a story of its own.

    And another one is that old Catholic thing about deathbed reversions. Think Brideshead Revisited. I’d like to see that story told with real numbers (personally, I’ve seen it twice).

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Sorry, I meant to link to the new Vatican document on the New Evanglization. I wonder what those ex-Catholics turned Baptist/evangelical would make of this:

    The Christian faith is not simply teachings, wise sayings, a code of morality or a tradition. The Christian faith is a true encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ. Transmitting the faith means to create in every place and time the conditions which lead to this encounter between the person and Jesus Christ. The goal of all evangelization is to create the possibility for this encounter, which is, at one and the same time, intimate, personal, public and communal. Pope Benedict XVI stated: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

  • Jerry

    Julia’s list of retention rates is very interesting. There has to be a few news stories buried in the numbers such as, for example, where the atheists are going and why.

  • Julia

    The retention rate of atheists does look like a can of worms just waiting to be opened – especially considering the atheists’ proselytizing these days.

    BTW Nones = no particular religion

    I’d guess that a fair number of folks switching, Catholic and others, is due to marrying out of the faith in which a person was raised. That’s what happened to 4 out of 6 in my family. My sister was bat mitzva’d, a None brother also married a Jew, a brother in the South is now a Southern Baptist and one out West is a Unitarian. Only a brother and I who married Catholics stayed active in the Catholic Church [altho I am a revert with a 10 yr gap]. Two sons married Catholics and are still active; third unmarried son says he’s a cultural Catholic and goes to Mass Easter and Christmas to please his mother. My mother married my Catholic father and converted much to the dismay of her family who went to the closest Protestant church in the neighborhood, usually Presbyterian.

  • Lawrence

    I would like to know the numbers on how many leave the Roman Catholic Church and join the Eastern Orthodox church. I followed that route, as did one priest who has ministered to me in the past.

  • Julia

    I’m learning a lot from this Georgetown website I stumbled upon that might be of use to diligent reporters. This discussion is mainly about Catholic numbers, but sheds light on how the counting game works – an explanation of the different religious affiliation numbers presented by different organizations.

    The discussion is about the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) which posts its data at The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)and the The Official Catholic Directory, using figures provided by dioceses – which consists of people who have a known connection to a parish, and self-reporting of affiliation.

    The ASARB data counts “adherents” and although it is referred to as a census it really isn’t in the traditional sense. Do you remember filling out your form? No you don’t because the adherents counted in the study are reported by the religious groups studied. A Catholic adherent “is roughly equivalent to those who are known in some way to each parish or mission.” The ASARB study considers the remainder of individuals in any county (as measured by U.S. Census totals), not counted by a religious group, to be “unclaimed.” Many of these people are religious and some are Catholic—the Church is just unaware of their presence. They may attend Mass only occasionally and are likely not registered with a parish. Does this make them non-Catholic? No (and they have not “ex-communicated” themselves either!). In fact these people still self-identify as Catholic and do many Catholic things.

    The ASRAB study basically measures church-connected membership. This is not the definition used by the Catholic Church or social scientists more broadly. For the Church, being Catholic is defined by baptism. For social scientists we consider self-identification to be the base definition.

    Read the whole thing – which isn’t long at:


  • Marie

    Julie makes an interesting point about marrying out of the faith. I would love numbers on retention of individuals who marry within the faith in comparison with those who marry outside the faith and those who don’t marry at all. Is there a trend across faiths/denominations/religious groups?

  • Julia

    My last post on this thread.

    I found some info on Catholic to Orthodox conversions. I think it’s reliable as it cites the Pew Foundation.

    Total numbers: .6% of the U.S. Population
    This is hard to compute because the U.S. census puts the total population at 299,398,484. When you exclude the 24.6% who are under 18 and multiply by .006 you end up with 1,354,478 – which is more than any of the estimates provided by Mike. Since we are dealing with self-identification, it could be that the surveys he cited were not including those who are culturally Orthodox.

    Net gain/loss (total # adult adherents – total # adults who were raised Orthodox) 0%
    Total number adults who were raised Orthodox and left: .3% of the U.S. Population
    Total number adults who were not raised Orthodox and entered: .3% of the U.S. Population

    Percentage of all adult Orthodox who converted: 23%
    Breakdown of previous religious background of converts (as a percentage of total adult Orthodox): 12% Protestant, 5% Catholic, 1% other, 4% nothing

    Percentage of those raised Orthodox who converted to another religion: 21%
    Percentage of those raised Orthodox who converted to no relgion: 7%
    Percentage of those raised Othodox who are still Orthodox: 73%


  • Salinas

    I’m not sure what the objective is in counting Catholics. In any case, recently an American bishop defined a Catholic as someone who believes and follows the teachings of the Church.

    By this definition, there are far fewer people in the church than is usually claimed. For example, one should exclude the 98% of women who practice or have practiced birth control (should we also exclude their husbands who approve?)

    See this website for other statistics about Catholic views:


    One can disagree with the exact percentages, but it is had to believe that all of the people counted as “Catholic” by the official church meet their own definition.

    • fredx2

      So you seriously believe that 98% of anybody have done anything?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Salinas, trusting a group like Catholics for Choice for real stats on the Catholic Church is like trusting a fox to give accurate stats on the numbers of chickens in the hen house.

    And if you could provide a link to where that bishop “defined a Catholic as someone who believes and follows the teachings of the Church,” that would be most helpful. But you should know that how one bishop defines “Catholic” and how the Magisterium of the Church defines it can be two different things.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Julia – The actual Pew study can be found here: http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

    The bit about atheist retention seems… off to me. Certainly it doesn’t match my personal experience. I’m having a hard time finding their raw polling numbers – I suspect a sampling artifact. (Also, given that evangelical faiths value conversion stories, there may be some inclination to emphasize, even exaggerate, ‘how far one has come’ in their ‘faith journey’.)

  • Michael

    Here’s two interesting charts about where Catholics in England and the US are going



    The largest group is going to the “Nones”

  • Veldy

    Some clarification may be in order when discussing “retention rates” of various groups. For Instance, one may be a former Hindu, or a former Muslim, and it can be safely assumed that those respondents have left that particular belief behind. However, when looking at various Protestant Christian groups, retention rates wouldn’t take into account moves between those varied groups, as in “formerly Reformed” now practicing their Christian faith as a Presbyterian or a Lutheran.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Plural is “whither go”, not slapping “-eth” onto any old word regardless of grammar.

  • Bill Hocter

    In my extended family of 41(with whom I maintain some contact) who started out Catholic, ranging from devout to very nominal, 25 remained Catholic, 2 became Anglican, 9 became nondenominational evangelical/fundamentalist, 2 became Jewish, and 3 appear to be unaffiliated. The overall level of religiosity appears to have increased. Those who remained Catholic tended to become more devout, while those who left the faith for something else tended to become more involved in their new faith than they were as Catholics.

    Ascribed reasons for leaving the Church were varied and often included a period of decreased participation followed by some culminating event. Such events included bad parish experiences (a priest who drank too much or was rude, mean 8th grade girls at the Catholic school bullying one of the kids), perceived moral laxity on a Catholic campus (students having sex in the dorm), divorce, marrying a non-Catholic, or living with someone outside of marriage. Doctrinal disagreements were common, although most were so poorly catechized that they couldn’t have given an explanation for the Church’s position on a particular issue. You couldn’t have told them that they were poorly catechized, however!

    I don’t know if this experience is typical or not, but since the author seemed hungry for some statistics, I thought I’d present some.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The point of counting Catholics is probably similar to the point of counting adherents of any faith. Or is it?

    Clearly, the polemical value of counting Catholics is large. Catholics can crow “we have this many converts, this number of members” or “the Catholic Church is bleeding members, losing social influence, and at death’s doorstep”. Of course, Catholics have nothing to brag about: we have sat at 24-26% of the U.S. population (18% percent worldwide) for a generation. And the obituary for the Church has been written for 2000 years now. Oh well… And some, like “Catholics for Choice” use stats to promote their own agenda. … yawn… Do other faiths use numbers this way? That’s a real question.

    The fact is that any sort of real count of Catholics is almost impossible. Fr. Andrew Greeley makes an excellent point that Catholics continue to self-identify as “Catholic” at a rate higher than adherents of other faiths. He also makes the point to be an “ex-Catholic” in the eyes of the Church, they must join another faith or formally renounce the Faith.

  • St Reformed

    “The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants”
    Source URL: http://ncronline.org/news/hidden-exodus-catholics-becoming-protestants
    by Thomas Reese, S.J. April 18, 2011

  • http://www.yourlifemattersinc.com Jay Quine

    The Opinion section of a recent Wall Street Journal (March 31-April 1, 2012) described at length Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s grievances against the Obama Administration’s guidelines for the Affordable Health Care Act. James Taranto’s intervew, When the Archbishop Met the President, was rich in irony. The Archbishop, a high official of an institution with a history of burning alive those who disagreed with its mandates in this life and burning them again for eternity in a hellish afterlife, spoke as if his church were entitled to stand as a credible arbiter of morality and freedom. The appalling gall of this attempt seems both mind boggling and gobsmackering.

    • fredx2

      It’s kind of sad when people are so desperate to bash the church that they have to go back 500 years to find something to complain about. And that was during the time of the bad popes. Well, haters are haters, I guess.

  • dalea

    To make sense of this, I suspect you would need a cohort study that tracks people over time. A ‘cohort’ is usually an age group, say 21 to 28 then 29 to 40. With retrospective data for older people, there should emerge some clear paths that people take. The shot in time method leaves too much confusion, this needs to be studied as a life cycle issue.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    “Burning” shots and mis-statements aside, beware of the Pew statistics. Study their methodology and sampling numbers. You can go to their site and wade through all the junk, but the upshot seems to be a good “guess”.

    As to the “third” of all Americans raised as Catholics, the CARA statistics referred to by Julia will straighten that out, somewhat, if you wish to delve into history. You will find that Catholics NEVER numbered above 25% of the population as far back as national stats have been kept.

    Pew’s sampling percentage, plus lack of historical data, seems to be the root of the problem.

  • MPSchneiderLC

    Thanks for the stats. Do we have anything about what percentage of Methodists become other protestants or the like?

    What I have seen is that protestantism (considered as one big group – those who remain in the same denomination and those who switch denominations) is better than Catholicism of retaining people. Very few would consider switching from Methodism to Lutheranism (becausre that’s where your girlfriend goes) a conversion.

  • IrishMichael

    This article says that the Catholic retention rate is not that bad compared to other groups, but that the problem is that the Catholics aren’t doing enough to get new members.

  • IrishMichael
  • soused rat

    why would any catholic or christian or “god-fearer” be against anything that helps those in need? In America, you are absolutely hosed without health insurance. The cost of medical care isn’t being addressed but we are at least looking into helping those, esp. the huge group of working poor, who need our assistance. How the conservatives and other groups turn this into a great evil, I just can’t understand. I think it goes back to our Calvinist roots, that if you are successful it is a sign of god’s favor. So of course we vilify the poor.
    (If you think the poor are getting such great medical care for free, take a look at the teeth of many poor people-esp. the kids.)