PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has long been called the most Catholic state in the country. But new research suggests that designation may be misleading.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a research group at Georgetown University, set out to discover the place in the United States that’s “more Catholic than anywhere else.” While the group did not offer a definitive answer, it appears that place is more likely somewhere in the south than Rhode Island.

Mark Gray, a senior research associate at CARA who did the analysis, said his findings surprised the group’s executive director, who asked him, “What about Brownsville and Providence?” (Brownsville is a historically Catholic section of Texas.)

Some of it may come down to semantics – how should “most Catholic” be measured? Self-identification? Mass attendance? Baptisms? Behavior? And should it be measured at the state level? Or is that misleading since Rhode Island is the size of a single county in bigger states?

Gray also said it’s difficult to precisely estimate religious adherence since different dioceses measure the faithful in different ways. So he used a number of potential proxies, including Census data, sacramental activity such as weddings and baptisms, “The Official Catholic Directory,” and Google searches.

The one place in CARA’s analysis where Rhode Island stood out: Bristol County on the East Bay has the 10th-highest percentage of Catholic adherents in the nation, with 75.1% of residents designated as Catholic. It’s the only county in Rhode Island – and, indeed, the entire Northeast – that makes the top 20.

Even those numbers may be somewhat misleading, though, according to Gray.

“I think this comes down to the issue of every diocese estimating differently,” Gray told Eyewitness News in an email. “[The Diocese of] Providence is likely trying to get at self-identified Catholics, where the Religion Census is trying to measure numbers of ‘adherents,’ or parish-affiliated, practicing Catholics.”

“Being in the Northeast and on the coast, it is possible that there is a sizeable number of people [in Rhode Island] who self-identify as Catholic but who may only attend Mass at Christmas, Ash Wednesday, and Easter or less often,” he said. “They are also unlikely to register with a parish.”

Gray also noted that separate surveys by the Pew Research Center show fewer than half of residents in the Providence metropolitan area self-identify as Catholics. And a Public Religion Research Institute poll found 41% of Rhode Islanders identified as Catholic last year, the highest share for any single state, but potentially lower than similar-sized places that are part of larger states such as Texas.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook