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Fifty years since Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to visit to the United States, Pope Francis is preparing for his inaugural appearance in the country. The only pope to rival John Paul II (who visited the U.S. more than any other pope) in approval ratings, Pope Francis faces a much different audience than his predecessors.
The U.S. Roman Catholic population has been subject to many of the larger trends affecting the general population over the past two decades. Take, for example, their geographic distribution across the country. While Catholics were once concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, today they cluster in the South and West.
This movement is not unique to Catholics—it’s a product of internal migration and immigration factors. “People go where the jobs are,” says Mark Gray, Senior Research Associate at Georgetown Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). That means moving from the rustbelt to the sunbelt.
Shifts in the general U.S. population are likewise affecting the cultural composition of today’s U.S. Catholics. Between 1987 and 2015, the Hispanic Catholic population increased by 24 percent. “The fastest growing subgroup of the U.S. population is the Latino population, so it’s no surprise,” Gray says. Moreover, the number of foreign-born Catholics in the U.S., at 21.5 million in 2014, has been increasing steadily over time, according to Georgetown CARA.
National cultural trends affect another facet of Catholic demographics: marital status. “Marriage is less common, people are waiting longer to get married, if they get married at all. There’s a significant uptick in living with a partner without marrying,” Gray says.
And as baby boomers hit retirement age, the U.S. Catholic population is getting older. Today, almost half of U.S. Catholics are over 50 years old. At the same time, young people raised in the faith, who could replace the aging generation, are falling away from the church in adulthood.