Millions of Catholics ‘uncounted’ in the U.S.

So many people have moved to Mount Olive, N.C., in recent years that the local Catholic parish, St. Mary of the Angels, had to move from an 85-person church building to a new facility that accommodates 700 Catholics who attend four Sunday Masses.

However, the official parish registry would never tell you this church in rural North Carolina is bursting at the seams. Several of the area’s new Catholics, many of them Latinos from south of the border, have not registered at St. Mary of the Angels.

“There are at least three times as many baptized Catholic, if not four times as many, than those who are affiliated with the parish in a formal registration,” St. Mary’s pastor, Father James F. Garneau, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“Registering is built around a middle-class model,” Father Garneau added. “It’s helpful, but it’s not built around the homeless and the poor, who may not have the same address or phone number from month to month.”

‘On the periphery’

The situation at St. Mary of the Angels, located in the Diocese of Raleigh, is not unique. A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University indicates there are 11.3 million Catholics in the United States who are not included in the Church’s official estimate of the nation’s Catholic population.

A good part of these “uncounted” Catholics are in the South and West, regions with high levels of migration. Catholics from the Northeast, and from Mexico and Latin America, have been moving into those regions over the past decade, and many of them have not registered with parishes, according to a CARA analysis of its 2013 National Survey of Catholic Parishes.

“Any place with high mobility, you’re going to have a lot of under-counted Catholics,” said Mark Gray, the director of Catholic Polls and a research associate at CARA.

Gray told OSV that most dioceses across the United States, in the annual Official Catholic Directory, underestimate the total number of Catholics in their regions. Individual parishes report their numbers of registered Catholics, but those figures do not include people who identify as Catholic but have not registered.

In CARA’s recent survey, Gray said that pastors, on average, reported having 2,500 registered parishioners and another 400 unregistered individuals who regularly attend Sunday Mass. That does not account for unregistered Catholics who do not attend Mass and have fallen out of practicing the Faith.

“Many of the self-identified Catholics are on the periphery,” Gray said. “They’re not the most active. Some of them, you might call cultural Catholics. More people are saying, ‘I’m Catholic,’ but not registering with a parish, so you see this gap between the self-identified and involved Catholics.”

By the Numbers
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there are 12 states where the number of self-identified Catholics are more than double the population of registered Catholics. These states make up 42 percent of the nation’s “uncounted” Catholics.
 State Estimated
 Self-identified
 Alabama   158,215    387,303
 Alaska     50,681    104,389
 Florida 2,279,306  4,810,004
 Maine    187,912     375,909
 Mississippi    110,665     224,341
 Montana     80,674     182,730
 North Carolina
  411,716  1,063,590
 Oklahoma   173,135     358,103
 South Carolina
  192,422     410,636
 Tennessee   201,174     526,174
 West Virginia
    72,913     159,470
 Wyoming     55,777     104,878

Moving target

On average, according to CARA, which also took Census data into account, the self-identified Catholic population in the United States is 51 percent larger than the Official Catholic Directory estimate. CARA identifies 12 states where the self-identified population is about twice as many as the official number (see sidebar). Forty-two percent of the nation’s “uncounted” Catholics live in those 12 states, according to the CARA analysis.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, told OSV that he was “keenly aware” of the situation with uncounted Catholics.

Wenski
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami

“In our area, the demographics indicate that we probably have 1.7 million Catholics living in the three counties that make up the Archdiocese of Miami, and we probably don’t have 600,000 who are registered,” he said.

“It’s not surprising, given the transience in our area,” Archbishop Wenski added. “We have a lot of people who moved here from someplace else, and a lot of them have moved here from other countries. Those moves can be unsettling in that those people take time before they settle on a parish community and then register with that parish.”

In Oklahoma, Father William Novak, the vicar general for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, also noted that increasing numbers of Hispanics have migrated into the area. Father Novak, who is also pastor of a parish in Oklahoma City, said many of the area’s new Catholics “jump around from church to church” and may never register in one parish.

“I’m always encouraging my people that attend Mass to register,” Father Novak said. “I tell them, ‘If you’ve been here three times, then this is your parish, and you need to register.’”

Hispanic Catholics also might be reluctant to register at parishes over fears that their information will be forwarded to immigration authorities. Pastors said that information is not sent to the government.

Pulling them in

Being mindful of the “uncounted” Catholics is important because they represent a key target for the New Evangelization. Many of them may darken the parish door on Christmas or Easter, but drawing them into active parish life is a bigger challenge. Being mindful of their needs and culture — for example, recognizing parish registration is not required in other countries — are keys to solving the problem.

“Each one of these realities call for different responses,” Father Garneau said. “For the Hispanic response, it’s establishing sacramental and traditional practices in Spanish that creates a movement of people who are hungry for those traditions.”

Archbishop Wenski said a recent archdiocesan synod studied the issue and looked around the country to determine the best practices to engaging self-identified Catholics who are on the periphery of parish life. One idea that emerged, the archbishop said, was to have foreign priests enroll in accent-reduction classes so their English is more understandable to American ears.

“We have an increasing number of foreign clergy here, and we have to help them acclimate so the people can understand what they are preaching,” Archbishop Wenski said.

At St. Matthew Church in Charlotte, N.C., which co-sponsored the CARA study, the pastor, Msgr. John J. McSweeney, told OSV that lay parishioners are expected to welcome the unregistered to church.

“The key to it is to invite people, period,” Msgr. McSweeney said. “You may know someone in your neighborhood who says they’re Catholic. So why don’t you invite them to your home? It’s a simple philosophy, really.”

Msgr. McSweeney added that a growing number of young people, including young adults and “millennials” who are increasingly less likely to identify with a religion, are choosing not to associate with the Catholic Church. “I think the Church of the future has to deal with the phenomenon that the institutional Church isn’t appealing in many circumstances,” he said.

Keeping a parish blog and Twitter feed, or setting up a Facebook page, are some ideas to reach out to unregistered Catholics who do not receive parish mailings or envelopes, said Gray, who added that the uncounted multitude is not a bad sign for the health of the Church in the United States.

“There is nothing really awful about this,” Gray said. “There is nothing that the Church needs to fix. Nobody is doing anything wrong.”

However, not registering in a parish in many instances is a barrier to having a child baptized or enrolled in sacramental preparation. It also makes it more difficult for pastors to gauge their parish’s needs and effectively plan for them.

“When Catholics register, they’ve stepped up and taken part in stewardship,” Msgr. McSweeney said. “They’ve put their names on the line and taken some ownership of their Church.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.