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A Catholic Boom for the United States

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Hispanic Immigrants Boosting the Ranks

LOS ANGELES, JUNE 26, 2006 (Zenit) - As debate continues over immigration policy in the United States, a side effect of the large inflow of people is a sharp increase in the Catholic population. The size of that increase is evident in a study released last Monday by the California Catholic Conference.

By 2025, Catholics are expected to comprise around 36% of California's population, up from the current 30%, according to the report, "Planning for the Future of the California Catholic Church: A Demographic Study." The percentage of Catholics nationwide is expected to be 23.7% by 2025. The growth in California Catholics is fueled by the increasing Hispanic presence.

As of last year, 11.1 million of California's 36.6 million people were Catholic. By 2025, 16.7 million of the state's expected 45.9 million residents will be Catholic. Of those additional 5.6 million Catholics, 3.5 million will be the result of new births, and 2.1 million as a result of migration from other states and countries.

"We are truly blessed that the Catholic Church in California is vibrant and growing, but our future should not happen by accident," said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, the president of the California Catholic Conference, in a press release Monday.

Data laid out in the study make clear the task ahead for the Church. By 2025, 4.3 million new Catholics will be baptized, more than 3.1 million children will celebrate their first Communion and the average parish will have expanded by more than 1,800 families.

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The boom in Latino immigrants nationwide means a tripling of their numbers in just 35 years. In 1990 there were 22 million. By 2025 their number could reach 66 million. The Census Bureau has projected that the total number of Americans will increase by 100 million between 1990 and 2025 -- and 44 million of that rise will come from immigration.

Nationwide, Catholic dioceses reported 53.6 million members in 1990. That rose to 65.3 million by 2005 and could reach 82.7 million in 2025, if present trends continue. The projections in the study assume a conservative estimate that 60% of the Hispanic immigrants will be in the Church.

Presence doubles

Catholic Latinos will likely increase to 40 million in 2025, more than triple the 13 million in 1990. Total growth in the U.S. Catholic population will amount to 29 million by 2025. Virtually all of the growth (26 million) will be due to the Hispanic population. Proportionally, their share of the Catholic population will double, to 48%, over the 35-year period.

Looking back in history, the study noted that in 1790 the Catholic population of 35,000 amounted to only 1.1% of a total U.S. population of 3.2 million. A big increase took place in the 19th century. The number of Catholics increased from 195,000, or 2.5% of the total population, in 1820 to 19.8 million, 18.6% of the total, in 1920.

As immigration fell in the following decades, Catholics declined as a proportion of the population, from 18.6% in 1920 to 15.1% by 1950. In the postwar baby boom their share rose to 21.9% of the population by 1960.

Turning to California, the study says that the state's total population increased to 36.6 million from 29.8 million in the 1990-2005 period. It could rise another 9.3 million by 2025.

The Latino portion of the increased population in 1990-2005 amounted to 5.4 million, 79% of all new California residents. This accounted for about a quarter of the increase in the Hispanic population in the United States. The Latino portion of the projected growth in California between 2005 and 2025 will amount to 7.6 million, or 81% of the growth.

The numbers of Catholics in California will have risen from 7.3 million in 1990 to a projected 16.7 million by 2025. Church membership will grow by 9.4 million, or 129%, between now and 2025. Thus, Catholics could reach 36% of the state's population by 2025, compared with 24% in 1990. One American Catholic in five will live in California by 2025.

The growth so far has taken place within the existing structures. The Catholic Church in California added a net total of only three additional parishes between 1990 and 2005. Since the number of Catholics increased by 3.8 million for the same period, membership in an average parish grew to 10,384 from 6,854. The study cited research indicating that Mass attendance has stabilized at about 33% over the past five years (attendance was 43% in 1990).

The higher number of faithful will put pressure on priests, whose number is in decline. From 1995 to 2004, the number of active diocesan priests in California dropped 202. At present patterns, their ranks could drop by additional 158 between 2004 and 2010.

The implications at the parish level were drawn out with examples from the Diocese of San Bernardino. An average parish now has 12,000 members, with about 4,600 registered households. If no new parishes are opened, the average parish in San Bernardino in 2025 would have 24,000 members, or about 9,200 registered households.

Reaching out

One of the challenges facing the Church is to ensure the Catholic faith is handed on to the new generations of immigrant families. A 2002 poll conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that younger generations are more likely than their immigrant parents to adopt non-Catholic religions or be agnostic, reported the Contra Costa Times on June 8. In the poll, 76% of first-generation Latino immigrants identify themselves as Catholic. This dropped to 59% of second-generation immigrants.

In an April 30 article the Washington Post commented that large numbers of Latino immigrants are leaving the Catholic Church for Pentecostalism. The trend is more marked in the second and third generation of immigrants. Thirty years ago, about 90% of Latinos in the United States were Catholic. Today that number is about 70%, said the Post.

The article cited opinions from researchers, who have found that Latinos have been drawn in by the aggressive proselytizing and practical help -- such as getting jobs or providing money and food -- that Pentecostal churches offer.

In an effort to reverse the trend, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) held its First National Encuentro for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry, from June 8-11, at the University of Notre Dame.

According to the Web page of Washington, D.C.-based NFCYM, the theme chosen for the meeting was "Weaving the Future Together." It also used the biblical image of the fisherman's net, taking up the invitation by John Paul II in his apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte," to "put out into the deep" for a catch.

The NFCYM noted that in less than five years young Hispanics, ages 9 to 28, will number about 18 million to 20 million in the United States. More than 2,000 delegates gathered for the meeting at Notre Dame. With the increased numbers in Catholics, they will have plenty to do in coming years.


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