Catholics and money

David Brooks recentlyhad a characteristically stimulating column on a paper by Lisa Keister of Duke University on "The Roman Catholic Advantage" in "wealth mobility."

Having just failed (again) to balance my checkbook, I hurried to get a copy.

Keister argues:

Non-Hispanic White Catholics are now among the wealthiest American subgroups and this wealth has dramatically increased in the last generation. (Her larger academic point is that this change might tell us something about inequality, wealth creation and stratification.)

Why have Catholics (again, non-Hispanic white Catholics) hit it big?

1. They get married later in life, like other highly educated people (see #3) and have fewer children. Catholic fertility used to far outpace non-Catholics, when controlling for class etc., but is now no different. (My neighborhood would suggest this isn't true but I think Keister is in fact correct.) I gulped in agreement, as the father of four children, when I read the following: "wealth declines precipitiously after approximately two children." (The non-sociologist in me loves that "approximately.")

2. They stay married, often to each other. Or put another way: the Catholic divorce rate is low, and the Catholic marriage rate to other Catholics is high. Divorce has extraordinarily bad consequences for wealth creation. (This makes sense.) This general finding surprised me since I was under the assumption that the Catholic divorce rate was not much different than the non-Catholic rate, and that Catholic homogamy was declining.

3. Catholic education rates are high. Catholics (again, NHW Catholics) are as educated as mainline Protestants, an achievement of the past thirty years. Attending Catholic schools is a bonus here (associated with high rates of college completion) as is distance from immigration.

Some of the historical background Keister uses in her more general argument is dated and probably of little use. And it's a pity that she didn't address how this discussion of Catholic mobility is a sort of inversion of Max Weber, whose experience in late 19th century Germany and anti-Catholicism shaped his own idea of the Protestant ethic.

Still, it's interesting stuff. Does this ring true to dotCommonweal readers/contributors? (From what we know, after all, you are the people Keister is talking about.) What conclusions should we draw?

One quick one to get us started: this should be a good time to be a fundraiser for a Catholic institution, except that it's at exactly this moment that the crisis of confidence in institutions like dioceses and archdioceses tainted by the sex abuse scandal is peaking. But I'm guessing schools, Catholic relief services and Catholic universities can do much better, if they can distance themselves from non-transparent Catholic competitors for Catholic dollars.

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Also by this author
Rouault and Chagall

Please email comments to and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads