But American Catholics today are strikingly different from their profile of even just 25 years ago. In 1987, for example, more than six in 10 Catholics were married. By 2011, that had dropped to just over half, with an additional 10 percent living with a partner outside of marriage. Catholics have moved into the middle class and beyond; the portion who have finished college has soared by 50 percent in just 25 years, to 27 percent.
Nathan Gagnon, 29, a practicing Catholic in Gaithersburg, Md., watched as his parents divorced, contrary to church teachings. Now, he believes clergy should be more accepting of modern marital strains. “When a couple does feel frustrated,” he said, they shouldn’t have to fear being “scorned” by a priest.
But Maria Theresa Garrison, 73, a native of the Philippines who came to the United States about 35 years ago, said that “if your faith changes, there is no faith. If you have to move according to what the new generations say or what the politics say, where is the faith?”
Garrison, who attends Mass daily in Falls Church, said that she has watched nieces and nephews move away from the church because of issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but that the church should stand by its principles. “Today the message is that man is first, that the world has changed and our views should change, too,” she said. “But if your faith is in God, you put God first.”
For Blanca Portillo, 21, a resident of Falls Church, Va., who attends St. Anthony of Padua Church, the church’s tone has been too harsh: “Instead of fighting and telling people, ‘Don’t do abortion, abortion kills,’ just help the person,” she said. “I am not saying the Catholic Church should say it is okay to do abortions, but . . . I think the church, its main duty is trying to tell people the why rather than impose rules.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, on Monday reiterated Pope Benedict XVI’s recent reminder that “there is a basic doctrine that is bedrock for Catholic faith. So I suspect that every pope is always going to be conscious of the need to proclaim the received tradition of the church. And then the challenge is living with that and applying that to the moment, to the circumstances of our day.”
Demographically, the U.S. church’s flock has shifted markedly, with non-Hispanic whites falling from 86 percent of Catholics in 1987 to 63 percent in 2011. Nearly all of the growth has been among Hispanics, who went from 10 percent of the Catholic population to 32 percent over that same period, according to Catholics in America, a survey conducted for the National Catholic Reporter.
The Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos, director of the Spanish Catholic Apostolate of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., and a native of Colombia, said the recent emphasis on transparency and helping those who have been abused has positioned the church for an American pope.
“This is an opportunity for us Catholics to demand a pope with origins in the United States or Latin America,” he said. “Just like in the United States we now have an African American president, the church also needs a change. We need a pope who is ours, a pope who speaks about pupusas, about tacos, about horchata.”
Luz Lazo and Annys Shin contributed to this report.