Catholic population in Alaska much larger than reported

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Alaska is among a handful of states in which local Catholic dioceses seem to have dramatically underreported the overall number of Catholics in the state. This comes from an article published by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

Citing a recent Gallup study, the CARA report notes that the Catholic Church’s official counts, as recorded in The Official Catholic Directory, or OCD, only claimed 50,681 Alaskan Catholics in 2013, a number based on parish memberships, infant baptisms and adult conversions. Gallup polling, however, combined with voter information from recent elections, indicates that more than 104,000 Alaskans self identify as Catholics. That’s one in seven people or 14 percent of the state.

Mark Gray is senior research associate at CARA, a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church to increase the church’s self understanding.

Writing for the CARA website’s official blog Gray said he is “frequently confronted with skepticism from journalists and academics about the church’s estimates for the size of the Catholic population in the United States.”

Many reporters accuse the church of padding its numbers, Gray observed.

“They are typically surprised when I note that it is actually just the opposite,” he said. “The church systematically undercounts its population.”

The discrepancy lies in the fact that the church relies heavily on Catholics who are registered and regularly attending Mass.

“There are a lot more self-identified Catholics out there,” Gray noted.

Typically these underreported Catholics are prime targets for the “New Evangelization,” Gray said, using a term coined by Pope John Paul II when speaking about the need to re-evangelize once Christian nations.

Gray notes that many self-identifying Catholics don’t attend church regularly anymore but they still go to Mass during key liturgical seasons such as Easter and Christmas.

“It’s keeping them engaged and involved the rest of the year that is the big challenge,” he said.

So just how many “undercounted Catholics” are there? Using Gallup’s polling numbers, combined with Census estimates for total population in 2013, CARA estimated state-level Catholic populations across the nation. In all but five states, dioceses collectively reported a Catholic population number in the Official Catholic Directory that is lower than what CARA assumes from Gallup’s data.

“On average, the self-identified Catholic population of states is 51 percent larger than the OCD estimate,” Gray writes. “There are an estimated 11.3 million ‘uncounted’ Catholics in the United States…”


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