A new finding: one in five UK Catholics was born elsewhere

Worshippers at a Mass in support of migrant workers at Southwark Cathedral (Mazur/

Last month, I published an article discussing rates of Catholic affiliation and religious practice among 16-29 year-olds across 22 countries. The report analysed data from the two most recent waves of the European Social Survey (ESS) – whose dataset is very useful, because it asks about religious affiliation and practice.

It is well known that the UK Catholic population contains a significant component of immigrants. From the 19th century onwards, the native numbers have been continually topped up from outside. The various waves of Irish immigration, of course, are the largest and most famous. But there are many, many more. Depending on where one lives, Catholics from specific national backgrounds may be more or less prominent: Lithuanians in Coatbridge, Italians in the Welsh Valleys, Keralan Indians in parts of the Midlands and the North West, and so on.

What I have never seen, however, is any credible attempt to quantify the precise numbers – nor how they compare with the UK population at large. But huge, publicly available datasets like the ESS do exist. One just has to know how to ask the right questions of them (and be careful about interpreting the answers).

Country of birth of Catholics in the UK (European Social Survey 2016; weighted data; N = 552)

A little bit of statistical wizardry later, and we’re able to reveal that whereas 92 per cent of the adult UK population were born in the UK, only 79 per cent of self-identifying Catholics were. (By contrast, 98 per cent of UK Anglicans – i.e., those in the Church of England, Church in Wales, Church of Ireland, Scottish Episcopal Church – are native-born.) One in five adult UK Catholics, therefore, were born somewhere else.

But where? The chart above allows us to see the dominant countries-of-origin. Poland, not surprisingly, ranks highly: nearly one-in-ten of all UK Catholics are Polish-born. This is followed by Ireland (5 per cent), the Philippines (3 per cent), and Romania (1 per cent). “Other” is a catch-all category, including around half a percent apiece from America, Lithuania, Malaysia, and India.

At the very low end, of course, one is somewhat at the mercy of sample size. No Hungarian-born Catholics were picked up among the survey’s 552 Catholic respondents (out of a very respectable 5042 for the survey as a whole). I know from the Magyar spoken at our primary school gates – St Gemma Galgani’s in Birmingham Archdiocese – that there are sizeable local pockets. The same could of course be said for many other nationalities.

The next chart is even more revealing. Since the ESS also asks about frequency of church attendance, we can zero in on just those who say that they attend Mass at least weekly (which is about a quarter of all those identifying as Catholic). This tells us that weekly-Massgoers include those born from the UK and Poland in about the same proportions we would expect from the previous chart.

Those from the Philippines, India, and Malaysia, however, rather punch above their weight when it comes to actually turning up every Sunday. The same is not true, however, of those born in Ireland. (No weekly-attending Romanians, Americans, or Lithuanians, occurred in the sample – though given the very low numbers of such Catholics in the survey to begin with, not much should be read into that.)

Country of birth of weekly-or-more Massgoing Catholics in the UK (European Social Survey 2016; weighted data; N = 144)

These analyses do not take account of second- or third-generation immigrants (which undoubtedly includes a significant proportion of UK-born Catholics). That, however, would require a whole new report – not just the offcuts left over from an old one.