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Study: US Catholic Church undergoing ‘ethnic transformation’

September 14, 2017
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Catholic Church is experiencing an “ethnic transformation” as the cultural center of Catholicism shifts from the Northeast to the South and what was once an overwhelmingly white, non-Hispanic church becomes increasingly diverse, a new study has found.

In 1992, 87 percent of Catholics were white and non-Hispanic, compared to 55 percent today. And 36 percent of Catholics under age 30 are white, non-Hispanic; but 52 percent are Hispanic, according to the American Values Atlas, released Sept. 6 by the Public Religion Research Institute.

“The cultural center of the Catholic Church is shifting south,” the study added. “The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism – although at 41 percent Catholic, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country. Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest.”

The study found that the Catholic Church is “experiencing an ethnic transformation.”

Compared to 1972, when 69 percent of U.S. Catholics lived in either the Northeast or Midwest, those regions are home to only 46 percent of U.S. Catholics, with 54 percent living in the South or the West, according to the study.

Dan Cox, the research director at PRRI, said political differences can be found within Catholics based on their ethnicity.

“There are still really significant racial and ethnic divisions. White Catholics are fairly different from Latino Catholics,” he told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 5 telephone interview.

“We see fairly insignificant differences where Catholics are on immigration,” he said. “On some of the social issues, there is more of an alignment – abortion and same-sex marriage. On abortion, you see both groups little difference and a little more conservative on the legality of abortion. It’s really interesting because that’s where so much contention is nationally, but there’s more of an alignment between the white and the Latino Catholic factions. But on social welfare issues we see larger fractures within the Catholic population.”

White evangelical Protestants, the single largest religious subgroup in the PRRI study, make up 17 percent of Americans today, but are more than double that strength – 35 percent – in the Republican Party. In all, 73 percent of self-identified Republicans in the study said they were white Christians.

“What we’ve really seen over the last decade or more is that the Republican Party is becoming the white Christian party. That hasn’t changed” among Republicans, Cox told CNS. “Earlier, both (parties) were white Christian. “The ethnic and racial landscape has shifted. The Democratic Party has changed dramatically. The Republican Party has stayed the same, being predominantly white Christian.”

The survey was based on 101,438 bilingual telephone interviews conducted between Jan. 6, 2016, and Jan. 10, 2017.

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