How Catholic Are We?

A meditation on the power and slowly waning glory of Catholicism in the Queen City.
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Illustration by Edmon de Haro

Q: How Catholic is Cincinnati?

A: So Catholic that McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish was invented here to feed hungry Catholics during Lent.

B: So Catholic that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati runs the sixth-largest parochial school system in the U.S., even though the Cincinnati diocese is only the 38th most populous in the country.

C: Catholic enough to make it the largest single religious denomination in the region.

D: Probably not as Catholic as you think.

E: All of the above.

For a few years in the 1990s my full-time job involved reporting on religion, covering matters of faith and spirituality in Greater Cincinnati, a region well-known for taking such matters seriously. The parade of issues was fascinating and never-ending: There was the fight over whether gay men and women should be accepted as full members of the Presbyterian Church; the launch of a new kind of church, steeped in contemporary culture and marketing principles, that its founders called Crossroads Community Church; and the struggle between tradition and modernity in Reform Judaism. Hovering above all of that, though, there was the Catholic Church, whose hundreds of thousands of followers formed the dominant faith tradition in the region. From praying the Holy Cross–Immaculata steps on Good Friday to the dignified death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the former Cincinnati archbishop, to fallout from the priest sex-abuse scandal, stories about Catholicism assumed an outsized role when it came to media coverage of religion.

Catholicism, everyone seemed to agree then as now, was inextricably entwined with our civic identity. In the shorthand version of what it means to live in Cincinnati, the West Side still arranges itself by Catholic parish boundaries, the Greater Catholic League is the biggest, baddest sports league around, and a Catholic strain runs through the region’s daily life—not just its expressions of faith but its politics, philanthropy, education, and social institutions.

There is truth in most stereotypes, but often lazy assumptions as well, and the image Cincinnati has of itself in this regard is no exception. Scratch the veneer of the region and you’ll find that while the Catholic Church has exerted enormous historical influence here and remains a vital force, the region’s religious makeup is richer and more complex than we normally give it credit for.

So yes, the Filet-O-Fish was invented here as a nod to hungry Lenten customers, and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati does oversee the sixth-largest parochial school system in the country, with another sizeable chunk of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Covington. And yes, Catholicism remains the largest single denomination in the region—but this is at a time when denominations are losing their hold on religious life. Perhaps most surprisingly, people unaffiliated with any religion outnumber any one religious group here, and the percentage of the population in Greater Cincinnati that is unaffiliated with any religion is higher than the nationwide rate. With neighborhoods dotted by steeples and many parochial schools bursting at the seams, Cincinnati still is a Catholic town; it just may not be as Catholic as you’ve always assumed.


First, a look at the numbers. According to the decennial U.S. Religion Census, which counts the number of people affiliated with various religious denominations in the country, the Cincinnati metro area had 401,960 Catholics in 2010, the last year the census was conducted. (The interstate configuration of the region complicates religious headcounts just as it complicates other facets of community life here; Northern Kentucky Catholics belong to a different diocese than their Ohio-based brethren but are counted as part of the metro area in the U.S. Religion Census.) The 2010 figure for Catholics is 3 percent lower than it was in 1980. While not alone in its decline, the fall-off in Catholics is not as large as the numbers posted by some other large denominations: The Episcopal Church, for instance, posted a 30 percent decrease in members, the United Methodist Church a 15 percent decrease, and the number of Presbyterians fell by 54 percent over that same period. Mainline African-American Christian denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church saw even greater losses over those three decades.

After Catholics, the next most numerous group is evangelical Protestants, a group that includes more than 50 denominations, and whose numbers have generally been rising in the past 35 years, reaching 329,196 in 2010, while mainline Protestants totaled 151,351. However, the largest group by far was the one the U.S. Religion Census calls “unclaimed,” which includes atheists and agnostics as well as those who may believe in God but don’t identify with a specific denomination. As of 2010 they numbered 1,170,077. These numbers are in line with national surveys that find Americans may be slowly losing their religion. While religious belief and observance in the United States remains significantly higher than in other developed countries, a Pew Research Center study published late last year revealed measurable declines in the country’s religiosity from 2007 to 2014. Those unaffiliated with any religion rose from 16 to 23 percent, while the number of Americans who believe in God ticked down, from 92 percent to 89 percent.

It’s not terribly surprising that religious trends taking shape in the American public at large are also taking shape in and around the Queen City, but it is surprising to compare the percentage of Catholics here with other metro areas. The Public Religion Research Institute finds that the Cincinnati region ranks just 18th for percentage of Catholic residents, putting us behind not only Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh—the three cities with the highest concentration in the country, where more than 32 percent of residents identify as Catholic—but also Miami, Houston, Las Vegas, and Detroit. What’s more, the institute reports that our rate of unaffiliated folks is 2 percent higher than the national average, and higher than just about any other Midwestern metro region, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

So while a lot of us are at church on Sunday—or at the mosque or synagogue (Islam and Judaism are the two largest non-Christian groups at 1 percent each)—a good number of us aren’t.


Of course, understanding a region’s religious identity requires understanding how that identity has changed, especially in the last half-century or so. In 1860, when the influence of Cincinnati’s Catholic population was on the rise, and even a century later, when Catholicism was enjoying vast influence on civic affairs, what it meant to be Catholic was pretty clear. A Catholic lived in a neighborhood dominated not only by Catholics, but by Catholics of the same ethnic background; here, as in other cities, Italian Catholics rarely lived near Irish Catholics, and German Catholics had their own parishes and schools. Catholics by and large were born in Catholic hospitals, went to Catholic parochial schools, donated to Catholic causes, and socialized in Catholic organizations.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Cincinnati assumed national prominence, growing to become the sixth-largest city in the country, but its increased immigration from Catholic regions of Europe prompted a backlash. Famed preacher Lyman Beecher, father of the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, moved to town in 1832 with a mission, in part, to halt the influence of Catholicism on what was then the American West. In a famous tract called A Plea for the West, Beecher described Catholics as “slaves in body and mind, whipped and disciplined by priests to have no opinion of their own, and taught to consider their emperor their God.” In a different publication, he warned that “the competition now is for that preoccupancy in the education of the rising generation, in which Catholics and infidels have got the start of us…. If we gain the West, all is safe; if we lose it, all is lost.”

Public schools became a battleground in this struggle; Beecher wrote, “if they mingled in our schools the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds.” The Catholics objected to such mingling, in part because the King James Bible used in public schools was incompatible with the Catholic faith. The controversy, which came to be known as the Cincinnati Bible War, was eventually settled by the Ohio Supreme Court, and it ended efforts to merge the parochial and public school systems. Journalist Colin Woodard, who in 2011 published the influential (and terrific) book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, argues that the U.S. has never been a unified country but instead has been riven by competing cultures from its start. Public schools were seen then as a way to assimilate newcomers into the Yankee culture that had spread West. “The Protestants who governed the region at the time, they wanted children of Catholic immigrants to be made into Protestant citizens,” Woodard says. “The Catholic population in the Midwest realized this and set up the schools to prevent this from happening. In some places they were able to overwhelm the Protestants to become the dominant culture.”

Setting up a Catholic school system was especially important in regions dominated by German Catholics, as Cincinnati eventually was. More so than Irish, Italian, or Polish immigrants, German Catholics were determined to educate their children in their native tongue, says the Reverend David Endres, an assistant professor of Roman Catholic church history at the Athenaeum of Ohio, “because they believed that language maintains or saves faith. Theirs was an ethnic identity especially tied to language, which was tied to faith.” The parochial school system whose foundations were laid in the 19th century continues to make Cincinnati appear to be more Catholic than its numbers would suggest. (For those who think the country’s current crop of immigrants resist the sort of integration that earlier generations embraced, consider what would happen today if Latino newcomers tried to set up a system of Spanish-speaking schools with the express intent of protecting their children from the wider society.)

It wasn’t just the school system, though. As both Cincinnati and its Catholic population grew, the landscape began to change as well. Massive churches and religious buildings became central to growing neighborhoods. To this day, a drive through any one of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods, from Sedamsville to Walnut Hills to Corryville to Camp Washington, will almost certainly include a glimpse of a towering Gothic or Neo-Romanesque spire—though in some cases the churches themselves are now empty or converted to other uses. For at least a century, the inhabitants of those neighborhoods remained tied to those parish boundaries, creating a parallel society that influenced nearly every aspect of its members’ lives.

“The way Catholics behaved and lived their lives was to show their distinction from society. There were many identity markers, from where they went to school to what they ate on Fridays,” Endres says. “I don’t know that we can comprehend now the degree to which every aspect of your life was mediated by the Catholic Church, from who you’d associate with to who you’d marry to where you’d work.” This societal control continued well into the 20th century. Catholics who needed help turned to Catholic philanthropies, Catholic kids played sports at Catholic centers like the Friars Club and the Fenmont Center in Hamilton, and their fathers spent their off-hours with the Knights of Columbus and other Catholic groups.

“They weren’t just groups to get together and drink beer, although they did that,” says Dan Hurley, a local historian and lifelong student of the Queen City. “They built their own isolated world, and I could argue that isolated world continued to exist until the election of John F. Kennedy and Vatican II.”

In Woodard’s regional view of America, Cincinnati sits on the border between the Catholic immigrant North and Greater Appalachia, and the white evangelical Protestants who populated Greater Appalachia had a vastly different approach to religious matters. Just as they generally mistrusted government institutions, they set up little to no infrastructure related to their faith. Religion was a personal experience, and while individual churches played an important role in peoples’ lives, they remained relevant at the congregational level and never coalesced into anything resembling the Catholics’ parallel society.

“For Greater Appalachia, orderly, efficient government was considered in itself a threat to liberty,” Woodard says. “They’re not institution builders, and for that reason if they are in a situation where they have to compete with institution builders, they’re at a disadvantage.”


It’s a long way from growing Catholic prominence in the mid-19th century to a regional Catholic identity in the early 21st, but the influence of a dominant culture often long outlasts by decades or even centuries the people who established it. Woodard notes that the Dutch who settled New York in the 1600s brought with them a cosmopolitan, freewheeling, and relentlessly commercial culture that persists to this day, even though the Dutch have been replaced many times over by immigrants from all over the world. Similarly, the Puritans brought with them an emphasis on community, consensus, and order, values that persist today even though New England is the least religiously observant region in the country.

“The first groups that come in start laying down laws and institutions and values and narratives, which people follow, and those are all components of what makes up a culture,” Woodard says. “Can that get overwhelmed and wiped out? Absolutely, but that’s harder than just getting rid of the people who formed that society.”

Catholicism—and the Catholics who practice it—remains a vital force in the region today. Catholics fill key political offices, from the mayor of Cincinnati to Hamilton County prosecutor to U.S. congressional representatives; until John Boehner’s retirement, the delegation from southwestern Ohio was all-Greater Catholic League (Boehner is a Moeller grad, Steve Chabot a LaSalle grad, and Brad Wenstrup a St. Xavier grad). The parochial school system has lost students, as have Catholic schools nationwide, but it remains both an educational and cultural force. Archdiocesan schools—and Catholic schools outside of archdiocesan control—enroll more than 42,000 students in 19 counties. Those schools are growing in outlying suburbs but also in the urban core, where up to three-quarters of the attending students are non-Catholic. The legacy of the Catholic school system has given the Cincinnati region one of the highest private-school attendance rates in the U.S.

But so much of what established and sustained Catholic culture as something apart from the rest of society has evolved in the last five or six decades. Endres points to the return of Catholic soldiers from World War II and their widespread entrance into universities as a result of the GI bill. Armed with college degrees, many of them left the Catholic neighborhoods they’d grown up in for burgeoning suburbs, which were more religiously diverse. John F. Kennedy was elected president, proving that Catholics could reach the pinnacle of mainstream American power. And Vatican II urged Catholics out of their enclaves and into the wider world.

As a result, what it means to be Catholic isn’t as predictable as it once was. There are people who consider themselves Catholic but who also attend services with their Jewish spouse or meditate at a Buddhist temple. There are Catholics who attend Mass every week but send their kids to public schools and belong to secular philanthropies such as the Junior League. Megachurches such as Crossroads are finally giving evangelicals the cultural prominence they’ve long avoided, but they too attract a fair number of Catholics and ex-Catholics. Assimilation has given Catholics—and Jews, and other religious and ethnic groups—more choices, but at a cost to the cultural institutions their ancestors sacrificed to build.

Rabbi Gary P. Zola of Hebrew Union College has studied 19th century Cincinnati, especially its Jewish population, which made the city home to the Reform Judaism movement. He sees in Cincinnati’s past a key to understanding who we are today.

“Back in the 1860s, Cincinnati was the sixth-largest urban center in the U.S. and since then it has continually declined in terms of size. But my theory about the city is that the psyche of this community has never completely abandoned its 19th century conviction that it is as important a community as any of the top 10 communities in this country,” Zola says. “As a result, its history takes on a larger and more influential dimension. If Cincinnati were to spring into existence in the year 2016, it would be very hard to merit a professional ball club, certainly not two. It wouldn’t have a zoo the size of the one we have, or Music Hall, or the train station that it built.”

Since at least that time, the Catholic Church has been a central figure in the history of the city. We’re still absorbing the options that are suddenly available for religious observance and what it means to have so many people unaffiliated with any tradition at all. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that we cling to the idea that Cincinnati is still predominantly Catholic; it’s an easier idea to embrace than the messy details and shifting demographics as they emerge.

“The way we see ourselves and think of ourselves is not always in line with reality. That’s not only true of human beings, but also true of communities,” Zola says. “When it comes to autobiography, we often lie with every breath we take.”

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