Are there really 64 million U.S. Roman Catholics?

Are there really more than 64 million U.S. Roman Catholics?

That’s what the 2007 Official Catholic Directory, due out this week, will say. But what about the dead, the double-counted and the disgruntled ex-Catholics — all of whose names may still plump up parish rolls?

Yes, there are probably “ghosts” in the lists, says demographer Mary Gautier, senior researcher for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in Washington, D.C. The center analyzes data for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

CARA’s analysis counts 64.4 million Catholics in 2006, up from 63.9 million in 2005. (The directory’s overall totals are higher because they include Puerto Rico, Guam and American protectorates.)

Totals are up, with minor fluctuations — 1% a year for the past 25 years, Gautier says. “But counting Catholics is more art than science.”

Catholics drift from parish to parish without ever formally moving their membership. Heirs neglect to tell parish secretaries that Mom or Dad has died.

And those who have stopped going to church or switched denominations rarely bother to formally quit, she says.

The American Religious Identification Survey in 2001 counted almost 51 million Catholics in the USA, making them the nation’s largest denomination. ARIS found that nearly 9.5 million Americans consider themselves ex-Catholics.

However, they are counterbalanced by the millions who still consider themselves Catholic but are not officially counted because they’ve never registered or they were baptized in another country, says Gautier. She’s a co-author of American Catholics Today, an analysis published this spring of Gallup surveys from 1987 to 2005.

Those surveys “get a substantially larger number who say they are Catholic than the directory counts.”

They find Catholics still cling to their religious identity no matter how far they stray from church.

“Still, that’s all extrapolation, and demographers don’t love extrapolations,” says Gautier. So the Official Catholic Directory and CARA statistics stick with parish registration, baptismal rolls and sometimes the subjective estimate of the diocesan bishops who submit the numbers. The accuracy depends on whether the lists are “cleaned” with any regularity. It’s an issue worldwide.

The technology magazine Wired recently touted a website for the Italian Union of Rationalists and Agnostics that claims 30,000 Italians have downloaded copies of a formal procedure, drawn from a Vatican website, for removing their names from the institutional church head count.

Although no one knows how many global Catholics have discovered the forms and mailed exit letters to their priests, “we see a traffic spike every time the pope says something unpopular,” site manager Raffaele Carcano told Wired.

No, they’re not getting unbaptized. It’s impossible.

“You may not practice, you may not believe. You may not belong to a parish. But technically, you’re always a Catholic,” says Monsignor Michael Servinsky, a canon law expert and the vicar general for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa.

“We used to get letters all the time from Jehovah’s Witnesses asking to be taken off the baptismal registry, but we never did it because you can’t be unbaptized. We did make note in the registry and stop counting them as practicing Catholics,” says Servinsky.

A 1983 revision of canon law for the first time permitted born Catholics and converts to formally leave the church. There tend to be three reasons why people want to leave, Servinsky says: conversion; a wish to marry a non-Catholic and still have the marriage recognized; and, in some European countries, a gambit for lowering income taxes by no longer having a percentage designated for the church.

But the Vatican found that the 1983 code didn’t specify the exit process and it befuddled bishops, canon lawyers and judicial vicars. So in March, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts elucidated a procedure for the Actus Formalis Defectionis Ab Ecclesia Catholica.

Just as it sounds, it’s the formal act of defection from the Catholic Church. It requires that a competent person make a free, conscious personal decision to “rupture bonds of communion — faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance.” Then he or she must write a letter saying this to the church and must mail it (no e-mail) to the parish where they were baptized so it can be duly noted in rolls.

Americans, however, have found an easier route, says Servinsky.

“They just stop returning the little donation envelopes from that last place they were registered, and, eventually, they get taken off the parish rolls.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 25, 2007.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at