One pressing question for the US Church is how to retain the millennial generation – those born between 1981 and 1996. Many are lapsing; but within the figures there are some intriguing differences.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 35 per cent of African American Catholics are millennials. By contrast, millennials make up just 16 per cent of white US Catholics.
The reasons for higher retention rates among young African American Catholics are not clear. 63 per cent of African American Catholics are third generation or higher – so it is unlikely that the bulk of faithful millennials are children of immigrants.
In fact, African American Catholicism is as old as American Catholicism itself, as Matthew Cressler, author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic, asserts: “The first black Catholics came to the Americas when the first Catholics came, in the 16th century.”
So what makes the difference? Strength of belief is the first factor – 88 per cent of black Catholics claim “absolutely certain” belief in God, compared with 67 per cent of whites.
This points to a clear cultural difference between attitudes to faith among black and white American Catholics. Three in four black Catholics describe their faith as “very important in one’s life”, compared with just over half of white Catholics. Mass attendance is, on the other hand, more evenly distributed: 44 per cent of black Catholics attend weekly Mass, just as 39 per cent of whites do.
And yet, when it comes to Americans’ habits of daily prayer, black Catholics once again far outweigh whites: 77 per cent of the former pray daily, compared with 57 per cent of the latter.
Furthermore, weekly scripture reading is doubly common among black American Catholics, at 42 per cent compared with just 21 per cent of whites.
The trend seems to be that faith is more “compartmentalised” among white Americans than it is among ethnic minorities – Latinos and Asians also boast higher retention rates among their youngest members, at 22 per cent and 28 per cent, and deem their faith as “very important” at higher rates than whites.
So the more central a role faith plays in the life of the family, community and culture, the more likely it is for the younger generation not to lapse. White Americans lag behind when it comes to daily prayer, regular scripture reading, and certainty in their faith.
There’s one other discrepancy between white and black American Catholics – finances. While educational distribution between the two groups is fairly similar – with just 7 per cent more white Catholics completing college degrees than black Catholics, income distribution is far more skewed.
Nearly half of African American Catholics earn less than $30,000, compared with just 23 per cent of white American Catholics. Similarly, more than half of white American Catholics earn above $50,000, compared with 34 per cent of black Catholics.
So one thing is clear: the wealthiest ethnic group is also the one praying the least, and losing young members the fastest.
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