Half of American Catholics Have Lapsed

But 11 percent eventually return to the church

Prayer Books
Gregor Schuster/Corbis

“Lapsed Catholic” is a term that’s inspired BuzzFeed lists, church doctrine and plenty of dinner-table conversations. Now, new poll results from Pew Research show that more than half of U.S. adults raised Catholic have left the church at some point during their lives. 

The new survey of 5,122 American adults found that of those who were raised Catholic, 52 percent left the church at some point. Of those who lapsed, 11 percent eventually returned, 41 percent would define themselves as “no longer Catholic,” and 13 percent are now “cultural Catholics,” or people who practice another or no faith, but still identify with the religion. 

Like some people who identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism without actively practicing the religion, cultural Catholics often belong to other faith traditions or identify as atheists. In another dive into the survey’s data, Pew reports that nine percent of Americans consider themselves to be Catholic, but don’t identify with the religion. Of that group, 62 percent report that “being Catholic is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture,” while 32 percent of cultural Catholics attend Mass at least once a year. 

Though only eight percent of ex-Catholics say they could imagine returning to the church, that number shoots up to 43 percent for cultural Catholics. It’s a statistic that seems to have made the church itself take note: This spring, the Vatican launched a campaign letting lapsed Catholics know that it’s “never too late” to rejoin their faith. And as Ismat Sarah Mangla writes for The International Business Times, the Vatican’s recent announcement that priests will have the ability to forgive Catholics who've had abortions is also thought to be a sign that the church wants to find new ways to retain — and take back — Catholics. 

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