According to the Diocese of Raleigh, just 5 percent of North Carolina’s approximately 420,000 Catholics are native to the state. Thus about 399,000 have arrived from somewhere else, helping not only to double North Carolina’s Catholic population over the last two decades, but also to foster the hopeful notion that Catholicism is thriving in certain parts of the nation. Indeed, the South in general has seen an uptick in its Catholic population, with 27 percent of the nation’s Catholics now residing there, up from 24 percent in 2004, according to Pew. In the same period, those figures dropped from 29 percent to 26 percent in the Northeast, and from 24 to 21 percent in the Midwest, strongholds built over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries thanks in no small part to Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendents.

Who’s fueling the southern boomlet? To a large extent, immigrants—the majority from Mexico and Central America, and many of the rest from Vietnam and the Philippines. But a significant number of the non-native Catholics are transplants from those old strongholds up north, including retirees lured by the weather and lower cost of living, as well as young professionals lured by jobs in corporate centers like Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Atlanta. Those cities and their surrounding suburbs are of course growing in general. The population of North Carolina’s southeastern Brunswick County, for example, is projected to hit nearly 130,000 in 2019, almost double what it was at the turn of the millennium. (By way of disclosure and illustration, I have family in the region, and when I visit I am struck by the number of people I meet who are originally from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois, many Catholic. This anecdotal evidence adds flesh to impersonal statistics indicating that the rise in the South’s Catholic population is tied to the drop in the North’s.)  

The demographic shift is seen in some areas as an opportunity to try new approaches to establishing and nurturing vibrant Catholic communities. Regional characteristics and behaviors like relatively low population densities and the entrenched driving lifestyle, for instance, could guide capital planning and resource allocation in a way that might mitigate against what seems in retrospect the “overbuilding” of churches and other infrastructure in the northern cities and suburbs, the closures and consolidations of which have been painful for those whose parishes had defined their communities. The multicultural quality of congregations could offer (and in many cases, already is offering) new opportunities for cross-cultural outreach and enrichment. And the South’s largely Christian culture might itself factor in. Interviewees in a recent report on Catholicism in the southern United States by OSV Newsweekly spoke of finding it easier to be open and “intentional” about faith given evangelical, black Protestant, and mainline Protestant neighbors who live theirs so outwardly. An Atlanta-area woman originally from New York said being challenged by Protestant friends on why she’s Catholic has “really pushed me to figure out and to learn why we do what we do.” Up north, she said, you answered the question by saying “because mommy does it and grandma does it. And that’s all you need to know.”

But positive regional trends continue to run up against larger general ones.

Latino Catholics, in the South and elsewhere, constitute an ever-increasing share of the U.S. Catholic population, according to Pew, but the percentage of Latinos who are Catholic is steadily dropping. What look like promising increases in the number of vocations in some regions are offset by drops in others. New reporting by CARA on retention rates among American Catholics offers by-now unsurprising numbers while also calling into question the viability of the life-cycle theory of religion—the well-known idea that religiosity and childhood patterns of affiliation weaken during one’s late teens and early twenties, only to rebound when one marries and has children, and perhaps rise even more as one’s years begin to mount. According to CARA, the latest data does not (in its blunt phrasing) “represent life-cycle theory well.” Newer generations of American Catholics simply are not evidencing the rates of rebound that previous ones did, a development CARA characterizes as a “real divide unlikely to ever be eclipsed…. As more pre-Vatican II Catholics pass away in the future (the youngest are now seventy-three years old), Mass attendance and retention rates for Catholics in the United States overall are likely to fall without them being in the pews.”

CARA also reports having spotted in its research a “surprising” new theme: “the notion among some that the Catholic faith is incompatible with science and that some have chosen science to actually be their faith.” A cultural environment in which non-belief or atheism are seen as evidence of being “smart” is the likely explanation, CARA says, and indeed it cites one respondent who’d consider religion if shown “replicable, peer reviewed, conclusive proof that a deity exists and I'm guaranteed a happy afterlife.” This is “a crisis of faith,” CARA declares. “Not the Catholic faith but just the notion of faith in general. … In a culture where ‘atheism’ and ‘smart’ are synonymous, faith pairs with what?”

“You’re all scientists now,” The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande told the graduating class of the California Institute of Technology last week, as if in a nod to that respondent’s comments. “Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.”

The interesting thing is that Gawande then goes on to bemoan what he, with some good reason, interprets as the growing “mistrust” in science, in language similar to that used by those bemoaning mistrust in institutions like government, media, and, yes, religion. It’s an address worth reading in full. But it also made me wonder if seeking to “pair” faith with anything is necessary or worthwhile. Does faith need a partner in this way? There’s good reason to engage in the kind of systematic thinking that includes compilation and analysis of data; spotting emerging trends is necessary to dealing with them. But I also recently happened on this passage from the novel Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow (of whom one critic said “there was no twentieth-century author more urgently concerned with where we were before our birth, and where we go after our death”). It’s an observation from protagonist Charlie Citrine, and it seemed worth closing with here:

What does religion say? It says that there’s something in human beings beyond the body and the brain and that we have ways of knowing that go beyond the organism and its senses. I’ve always believed that… I’ve been to college so I know the educated answers. Test me on the scientific world-view and I’d score high. But it’s just head stuff.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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