As Pope Francis begins, American Catholic identity hits 40-year low

Strong Catholic identity is at a 40-year low in the United States, according to new analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The analysis, released to coincide with the election of Pope Francis, paints a far different picture of the United States’ 78.2 million Catholics than the hype around the conclave would suggest. Only 27 percent of Catholics would call themselves “strong” adherents, down from 46 percent in 1974. Protestants, meanwhile, feel more faithful than ever, according to the report.

Pew also found that only one in five Catholics attends services every week, versus almost 40 percent of Protestants. Catholics born before Vatican II still attend Mass weekly, according to Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; younger members increasingly do not.

While strong Catholic identity has been on the decline for years — American Catholics are famously lax in adhering to church social teachings, and indifferent to Vatican pomp — the most dramatic dip came in the early 2000s, amidst the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Previous Pew research indicated that media coverage of the scandal reached a fever pitch in 2002, about the same time that feelings of strong Catholic identity started to drop off.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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