American Catholicism is becoming knitted into a broader Latin American faith. This matters, even for those who care little for religion. Catholic institutions are estimated to employ more than 1m people. (Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, has 1.3m workers in America.) Catholic institutions run 5% of the nation’s schools and 10% of its hospitals. A quarter of Americans describe themselves as Catholic, a proportion that has remained steady even as the share of Baptists and other Protestants has fallen. By one estimate, America will have 100m Catholics by the middle of the century.
The steadiness in the Catholic share of the nation’s souls disguises a lot of change. Americans like to switch religions. Data from the Pew Research Centre suggest that more than half of adult Americans have changed religion or denomination at some point. The Catholic church does particularly badly from such exchanges: for every convert it wins, four people leave. As a result, fully 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics. If abandoning Rome were a religion it would be the nation’s fourth-largest, says David Campbell of Notre Dame University. The outflow began before the scandal about child abuse by priests and the church’s habit of covering it up erupted, but that has not helped to win converts.