Almost 5 million current Catholics fell away, but then “reverted.” An analysis of who they are and why they came back.
See the figure below to comparatively evaluate how well the U.S. Catholic Church does in retaining its members (more on this here: 1, 2, 3). All things considered a 68% retention rate is better than many faiths achieve (...all Protestant denominations with sufficient numbers of respondents for an estimation have lower retention rates than the Catholic Church). And if you think it is challenging to be a Catholic parent try being an Atheist parent! Some 70% of Americans raised to believe God does not exist end up being a member of a religion as an adult (about one in five former Atheists drift off to become an open-minded agnostic or None).
Those who leave and come back are often called the "returned" Catholics or the "reverts." CARA has two data sources that can be used to estimate the size of this population. The first is the responses of 20,031 in-pew surveys from adult Mass attenders in parishes across the country and the second is a national survey of 1,504 adults conducted last week. From these two sources we can estimate that in the pews, on a typically 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. However, this is a bit of an under-count as the survey on which this later number is based was only conducted in English. Using other CARA data sources and the in-pew responses (...where surveys were conducted in both English and Spanish) together we can estimate that there are likely an additional 360,000 Spanish-speaking reverts. Thus, in total CARA estimates there more than 5 million Catholic reverts nationally in 2012 (i.e., equivalent to 9% of all adult Catholics).
Who are the Catholic reverts? Currently, these are people who are disproportionately between the ages of 25 and 34 (currently a combination of the oldest Millennials and the youngest of the Post-Vatican II Generation). A plurality of regular Mass attending Catholic reverts (41%) are of the Post-Vatican II Generation (ages 31 to 51). Another numerous group of reverts are in their retirement years (age 65 or older). Younger reverts may be coming back as they marry and raise children—seeking out sacraments. Seniors may turn back to the faith of their youth just at the moment they begin to face the autumn of their life.
Among reverts who are regularly attending Mass (as measured in CARA in-pew surveys), 47% report that they had attended Catholic elementary school, 30% went to a Catholic high school, 89% celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation, and 12% went to a Catholic college or university.
Those more interested in the life-cycle phenomenon of why and how Catholics revert should check out In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice, and Change by Michele Dillon and Paul Wink. If you are not a numbers person and instead want to hear the stories of people who reverted back to the Catholic Church check out these profiles over at whyimcatholic.com. Finally, over at the USCCB here are some tips for how parishes can welcome back reverts.
Mark M. Gray. "The Reverts: Catholics who left and came back." Nineteen Sixty-four (June 19, 2012).
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. This article is reprinted with permission from the Mark M. Gray.
CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
Mark M. Gray is the Director of CARA Catholic Polls and a Research Associate at CARA. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of California, Irvine.
Methodologically, Mark specializes in survey research, trend analysis, and cross-sectional time-series studies. Some of his recent work at CARA has included national surveys of adult Catholics, surveys for Catholic schools, diocesan-level trend analyses, program evaluations, and Catholic media studies. Academically his research focuses on political culture, political participation, and religion and politics. He has taught courses on Introduction to the Social Sciences, Introduction to Political Science, Societal Issues, and Latino/a Culture in the United States.
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