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The Roman Catholics

Although Spanish and French colonization brought Roman Catholic settlers into what is now the United States from the earliest days of European exploration, the original thirteen colonies that became the United States after the American Revolution had few Catholic residents. German and Irish Catholics began to arrive in the United States from the 1840s. Large numbers of Catholics arrived in the United States from southern and eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. Late 20th and early 21st century Hispanic and Filipino immigration brought new Catholic numbers. Today, Roman Catholics are the largest individual religious denomination in the United States, accounting for just over 20% of the population. The United States has the fourth largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. Protestants as a group taken together do outnumber Catholics, however.

Because of the diverse origins of the American Catholic population, Catholicism in the United States takes on a multi-cultural tone. While not official, in practice individual Catholic churches often serve parishioners of specific nationalities. The tone and appearance, even the architecture, of a church in an Italian-American neighborhood will differ markedly from that of a church in an Irish neighborhood, even if the Catholic ritual is identical. Churches serving the various ethnicities also provide religious services in their respective languages, especially in the case of Spanish.

More than 400 individual bishops and archbishops administer the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses and archdioceses. Among these bishops, several have the honorary title of cardinal. Although the bishops are organized into the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, they are each individually answerable to direction from the Holy See in Rome. Hence, no one individual acts as the head of the American Catholic Church. Many thousands of priests take care of the front line religious work, assisted by an equal number of lay ministers and deacons. Approximately 60,000 nuns and 5,000 monks make up the American religious orders.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Catholic Church in the United States had the misfortune to suffer from a number of scandals involving sexual abuse of young people and children by priests, aggravated by systematic administrative interference with investigations into the behavior (in popular language, a massive “cover-up”). Criminal prosecutions of priests tarnished the image of the Church. Successful civil suits cost individual Catholic dioceses many millions of dollars in damages, sometimes seriously compromising their ability to survive. The issue is ongoing.

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