Media often ask how many Catholics there are in the U.S. There’s no simple answer. Catholics are the largest congregation, but finding their exact number is not easy.
The Official Catholic Directory (OCD also known as the Kenedy Directory, in its 2008 edition gives the formidable number of 67,117,016. That includes Catholics not only in the 195 dioceses of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), but also those in dioceses of U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Samoa, Caroline Islands and the Virgin Islands. When you subtract the 3 million-plus Catholics in these territories, the number of Catholics covered by the USCCB is about 64,117,016.
The OCD statistics come from dioceses, and they collect their numbers from parishes. Thus, the OCD numbers are people identified by the parish. Some pastors count their registrants. However, registering is emphasized in the U.S., but not everywhere, so some immigrants do not enroll in a parish when they come here. Others, no matter where they hail from, don’t sign up for anything. Some pastors periodically count the people in the pews and augment parish registration numbers with sacramental records and other estimating procedures to account for those not registered. It’s an inexact science.
Many undocumented persons don’t enroll because they are leery about giving anyone personal information, lest it lead to deportation. That, and the fact that most Latino and Mexican immigrants are Catholic, suggests that the OCD numbers underestimate. Recent U.S. Census numbers estimated the number of Latino/Hispanics at 44.3 million; other studies say 60 to 80 percent of them are Catholic. This makes it a safe bet that the number of Catholics in the U.S. is significantly higher than the OCD’s official estimate.
It is also noteworthy that when surveys, such as the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, ask people to identify their religious affiliation, about a quarter of all U.S. adults say they are Catholic. That corresponds to about 73 million adult Catholics. That’s 73 million not counting minors.
How one defines Catholic also bears looking at. The Code of Canon Law holds that all people who are baptized Catholic are Catholic and that a pastor is responsible for all Catholics in his territory. Even when people leave the Catholic Church we refer to them as an ex-Catholic or former Catholic, sort of Catholic in absentia.
Years ago a “good Catholic” meant a daily communicant, today, a “church-going Catholic.” Self-identified Catholics include everyone from the daily Mass-goers to the “born Catholic,” found in church only for their wedding and, they expect, their funeral. The word “catholic” by definition, means “comprehensive, universal,” so it’s hard to argue with their self-appellation and perhaps even judgmental to try. Note: No one is born Catholic; Catholicity comes through baptism, not birth.
The Irish writer James Joyce famously defined the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody.” When you do the numbers, Joyce may be as right as anyone.