Expert Commentary

Pope Francis, Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church: Research and background data

2013 review of reports and studies that provide helpful background on the Roman Catholic Church, its demographic composition and related issues.

When Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign on Feb. 28, 2013, the unexpected news put the Roman Catholic Church and its global community in the media spotlight. In announcing his decision, Pope Benedict stated that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith … both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

A variety of studies and reports can help inform coverage of Catholics’ responses and provide context around these “rapid changes” that the Church is seeing.

To begin with, the Poynter Institute’s overview article, “Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: What You Need to Know,” has helpful advice for reporters, while the New York TimesTopics page on the Pope has links to a variety of useful sites and materials. A leading U.S. political science blog, “The Monkey Cage,” has posted useful links relating to the election of a new pope — the papal conclave.

As for background data, it is worth noting that there are about 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, with an estimated 74.4 million — 24% of the country’s population — living in the United States, according to 2011 data from the Pew Research Center.

Data from the National Council of Churches shows that, as of 2011, there were 18,372 Catholic churches and 68,503,456 members. The count of the U.S. Census Bureau, derived through the American Religious Identification Survey, notes that there were an estimated 57.2 million people who self-described as Catholics in 2008, compared to 46 million in 1990.

The church has globalized substantially in recent decades, and about 40% of all Catholics worldwide reside in Latin America. Among the top 10 countries with the biggest Catholic populations are Brazil (the largest), as well as Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some 16% of the Catholic population now resides in sub-Saharan Africa and 12% is in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Pew, which also puts these shifts in historical context.

The Association of Religion Data Archives offers historical and statistical patterns both on the declining number of Catholic churches and clergy members in the United States, as well as county-level data on the distribution of Catholic adherents across the country. For more details on U.S. Catholic practices — including church attendance and views on God — see this survey data providing a “portrait” of beliefs, also from Pew.

The following research reports and studies furnish interesting perspectives:


“U.S. Catholics Divided On Church’s Direction Under New Pope”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 21, 2013.

Excerpt: “… While about half of U.S. Catholics (46%) say the next pope should “move the church in new directions,” the other half (51%) say the new pope should “maintain the traditional positions of the church.” And among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63%) want the next pope to maintain the church’s traditional positions…. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 13-18 among 1,504 adults (including 304 Catholics) also finds that nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics have heard a lot (60%) or at least a little (30%) about Benedict’s resignation. Just one-in-ten Catholics say they have heard nothing at all about his resignation.”


“Catholics Share Bishops’ Concerns about Religious Liberty”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, August 1, 2012.

Excerpt: “Roughly eight-in-ten Catholics say they are very or somewhat satisfied with the leadership provided by Catholic nuns and sisters in the U.S. (83%), and 82% express satisfaction with the leadership provided by their parish priests. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics (74%) say they are satisfied with the leadership provided by their bishop, and an identical percentage expresses satisfaction with the pope’s leadership. Seven-in-ten Catholics say they are very (24%) or somewhat satisfied (46%) with the leadership of the American bishops in general…. The percentage of Catholics who say they are satisfied with the leadership of American bishops is significantly higher than it was a decade ago, at the height of the church’s child sex abuse scandal (70% today, 51% in 2002)…. While Catholics are generally satisfied with the leadership of their local and national clergy, they express the highest satisfaction with leadership of U.S. nuns and local parish priests. About half say they are very satisfied with the leadership that nuns and priests provide (50% U.S. nuns, 49% their own parish priests). By comparison, 36% of Catholics say they are very satisfied with the leadership of their bishop, 34% with the pope’s leadership and 24% with the leadership of American bishops.”


“Electing Popes. Approval Balloting with Qualified-Majority Rule”
Colomer, Joseph P; McLain, Iain. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1998.

Excerpt: “For many centuries, the election of the pope was an occasion of violent conflicts and schisms that weakened the Church and subordinated it to secular powers. These conflicts later gave way to long delays in decision-making and, since the end of the thirteenth century, to winning candidates who frequently came as a complete surprise. The history of the Church decisions about electoral rules seems to have been driven by successive reactions to unintended, undesirable effects of previous decisions.”


“Broad Criticism of Pope Benedict’s Handling of Sex Abuse Scandal”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April 7, 2010.

Excerpt: “Amid new revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI’s job ratings for handling the scandal have plummeted. Only about one-in-ten (12%) say the pope has done an excellent (3%) or good job (9%) in addressing the sex abuse scandal; 71% say he has done a poor (44%) or only fair (27%) job…. The pope’s ratings for addressing the continuing scandal have declined sharply since April 2008, shortly after his visit to the United States. At that time, 39% said he had done an excellent or good job in dealing with the abuse scandal, while 48% said he had done only a fair or poor job.”


“From Faith to Freedom: The Role of Religious Actors in Global Democratic Progress”
Philpott, Daniel; Shah, Timothy Samuel; Toft, Monica. Paper at Social Science Research Network, 2011.

Abstract: “Examining all cases of global democratization between 1972 and 2009 (excluding countries with populations of less than 1 million, while including countries that made democratic progress but fell short of consolidated democratic perfection), the paper explores where and why religious actors made a pro-democratic difference. The analysis finds that religious actors played a significant supporting or leading role in more than half of all cases of global democratization in this period. Although the majority of the pro-democratic religious actors in these cases was Roman Catholic, the best explanation for their pro-democratic activity lies not in religious tradition or identity per se (Catholic v. Protestant or Christian v. Muslim, for example). Instead, the paper argues that the best explanation lies in a combination of two key variables: (1) the given religious actor’s institutional or structural relationship to the state and (2) the religious actor’s theology of politics and government — its political theology. Where religious actors enjoy some instititutional independence from the state as well as a political theology that is at least compatible with liberal democracy, they are likely to play a democratizing role. The combination of these two factors — a religious actor’s proximity to power and its theology of power — provides a robust explanation even of differences in political behavior between religious actors of the same religious tradition (for example, why Brazilian and Chilean Catholic actors were pro-democratic while Argentine Catholic actors were not for the most part) as well as offers a satisfying explanation of the so-called ‘democracy deficit’ in the Muslim world.”


“The Continuing Relevance of Family Income for Religious Participation: U.S. White Catholic Church Attendance in the Late 20th Century”
Schwadel, Philip; McCarthy, John D.;  Nelsen, Hart M. Social Forces, 2009.

Abstract: “The relevance of family income for religious participation in the United States has been largely ignored in recent decades. Addressing this neglect, we focus our attention primarily upon white Catholics, the poorer of whom we reason have fewer options to participate in the context of an increasingly middle-class Church. Analyzing the 1972–2006 cumulative General Social Survey data, we show that net of all other factors low-income white Catholics attend church less often than other white Catholics, although social integration mechanisms significantly moderate the effects of income. Additional analyses suggest that the effects of income on church attendance are greatest for the younger white Catholic cohort. In contrast, the role of income in Latino Catholics’ attendance is relatively weak. In our conclusion, we attempt to integrate our most puzzling finding — having children in the home does not increase the church attendance of low-income white Catholics — with our main theoretical line of argument concerning the central role of social integration in understanding the impact of income on religious participation.”


“Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Vox Sagittae”
Maltzman, Forrest; Schwartzberg, Melissa; Sigelman, Lee. PS: Political Science and Politics, 2006.

Excerpt: “While many attribute institutions to divinity, political scientists frequently attribute institutions to the rational calculations of pivotal figures. It is in this spirit that we have explored the elimination of the supermajority requirement for selecting the pope. Although we have no doubt that John Paul II had a preferred successor and we suspect that this successor is the current holder of the papal ring, we also do not doubt that John Paul II recognized that the legitimacy of the papacy depends in part on a relatively swift and harmonious selection process: that is, it is important that the cardinals appear to have easily identified the correct man, and not to have elected a compromise candidate after prolonged bargaining…. The timing of the pope’s decision to empower a simple majority of the conclave suggests that his primary motive was neither to ensure a Ratzinger papacy nor to empower the cardinals he had selected. Instead, his decision stemmed from his discovery that social choice processes are frequently inconclusive. Is the appointment of the Pontifical Academy, and of one of its members in particular, a smoking gun? Perhaps not—but it is surely a flaming arrow.”


“Changes in Americans’ Strength of Religious Affiliation, 1974–2010”
Schwadel, Philip. Sociology of Religion, 2012.

Excerpt: “While Catholics were notably more likely than mainline Protestants to report having a strong affiliation from the 1970s through the early 1990s, from 1996–1998 to 2004–2006, there was no difference between them, and in 2008–2010, mainline Protestants were more likely than Catholics to report a strong affiliation. Both black Protestants and evangelical Protestants were more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to report having a strong affiliation throughout the time frame. The difference between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, however, has grown. Catholics’ likelihood of having a strong affiliation declined considerably in the 1980s, and evangelical Protestants’ likelihood of having a strong affiliation increased over the last two decades. There was also an increase in the percent with a strong affiliation among black Protestants from the early 1990s through 2004–2006. As recently as the middle of the 1980s, the difference between Catholics and evangelical Protestants was only 5 percentage points. By 2008–2010, more than 56 percent of evangelical Protestants and black Protestants had a strong religious affiliation while only 39 percent of mainline Protestants and 35 percent of Catholics reported having a strong affiliation…. These results suggest that secularization in the form of lack of commitment to a specific religion or denomination is a serious problem in the mainline and Catholic communities in particular.”


“Do Latino Christians and Seculars Fit the Culture War Profile? Latino Religiosity and Political Behavior”
Gibson, Troy; Hare, Christopher. Politics and Religion, 2012.

Findings: On issues such as abortion, gay marriage and ideology, secular and religious Latinos generally fit in the progressive and orthodox camps of the “culture war,” respectively. However, “this rightward effect is far more substantial for evangelical than committed Catholic Latinos.” Further, “Evangelical Latinos are 24% more likely than secular Latinos, and 6% more likely than committed Catholic Latinos, to identify themselves as ideological conservatives, and are 12% more likely than committed Catholic Latinos and 18% more likely than secular Latinos to be Republicans,” while committed Catholic Latinos are no more likely than secular Latinos to identify as Republican. Committed Catholic Latinos behave more like secular Latinos than evangelical Latinos concerning Israel and the Iraq War: “Evangelical Latinos are 20% more likely than secular Latinos to support U.S. involvement in Iraq, and 21% more likely to sympathize more with Israel than Palestine”; and “committed Catholic Latinos are 16% less likely than evangelical Latinos to support the Iraq War, and 13% less likely to sympathize more with Israel than Palestine.”


Keywords: research roundup, religion, Catholicism