U.S. Catholics Vary Widely on Moral Issues

by Frank Newport

Active Catholics much more conservative

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The death of Pope John Paul II has focused attention on the future of the Catholic Church and the importance of the next pope and his positions on key doctrinal and moral issues. Pope John Paul II's conservative stances were positively received in some quarters, but most observers agree that many Catholics consider themselves out of sync with church positions and that this disjuncture has possible long-term negative implications.

Although most of the world's Catholics live outside the United States, an analysis of American Catholics' characteristics, attitudes, and opinions provides useful insights into the challenges the church faces in the years ahead.

A special Gallup Poll review of data on American Catholics -- about a quarter of the adult U.S. population -- shows that Catholics as a whole tend to express views similar to those of non-Catholics on many moral issues. The two groups also share similar demographic characteristics (although Catholics are more likely to live in the East and to be Hispanic). A detailed examination of the Catholic population's views on moral issues, however, reveals significant differences within the broad Catholic population. The third of American Catholics who are active churchgoers tend to be older and much more conservative on moral issues than are those who attend church less frequently or do not attend church at all. This latter group of lapsed Catholics, who are younger and constitute about a third of all Catholics, are much more likely to say that such things as abortion, the death penalty, and stem cell research are morally acceptable.

Catholics on Six Moral Issues

Each May, Gallup asks Americans to rate the acceptability of a series of moral and ethical issues ranging from abortion to wearing animal fur.

For the purposes of this analysis, we looked at six moral issues on which the Catholic Church has taken a position: abortion, the death penalty, doctor-assisted suicide, homosexual behavior, divorce, and research using stem cells derived from human embryos. In order to provide larger sample sizes and more stable estimates, we combined data from 2002, 2003, and 2004 in this analysis.

Moral Acceptability of Six Issues
Based on Gallup Polls Conducted in
May 2002, May 2003, and May 2004
% Morally acceptable

Catholics

Non-Catholics

%

%

Abortion

37

39

Death penalty

63

65

Doctor-assisted suicide

48

50

Homosexual behavior

48

39

Divorce

68

64

Stem cells/Human embryos

55

53

Sample size

734

2,284

There are no significant differences between Catholics and non-Catholics in their views of the moral acceptability of five of these issues, although homosexual behavior is more likely to be perceived as morally acceptable among Catholics than it is among non-Catholics.

Differences Within the Catholic Population in the U.S.

These data suggest that Americans who identify as Catholic are not substantially different from everybody else in terms of their positions on these key moral issues.

But as noted, the Catholic population in the United States today is not monolithic. In particular, data show that the rate of church attendance among Catholics has drifted downward over the years, resulting in a situation in which about a third of Catholics report attending church weekly, about a third say they attend less than weekly or monthly, and about a third say they seldom or never attend.

These are vastly different groups of Catholics. Demographically, the active Catholics who attend weekly are much older than less active Catholics. More importantly, an analysis of self-reported moral acceptability of the six issues shows extraordinary differences among the three groups of Catholics as determined by their church attendance.

Moral Acceptability of Six Issues
Based on Gallup Polls Conducted in
May 2002, May 2003, and May 2004
Based on Catholics Only
% Morally acceptable

Catholics who attend church weekly

Catholics who attend church nearly every week or monthly

Catholics who seldom or never attend church

%

%

%

Abortion

20

34

54

Death penalty

45

64

77

Doctor-assisted suicide

32

48

62

Homosexual behavior

35

45

63

Divorce

55

66

82

Stem cell/Human embryos

37

58

68

The pattern is consistent on all six issues. The moral acceptability of each issue is lowest among Catholics who attend church weekly, somewhat higher among those who attend less frequently, and much higher among those who seldom or never attend.

The differences are striking. Only 20% of active Catholics who attend church weekly say that abortion is morally acceptable. That percentage rises to 34% among those who attend nearly every week or monthly, and jumps to 54% among lapsed Catholics who rarely attend church. There are similar differences on each of the other issues.

Overall, significant majorities of Catholics who seldom or rarely attend church find each of these six issues to be morally acceptable, while less than a majority of the active Catholic group finds five of the six morally acceptable (the exception is divorce, morally acceptable to 55% of active Catholics).

These data are a striking representation of the problems the Catholic Church faces today, in some ways suggestive of the strategic issues facing a political candidate who has to decide between appealing only to the party faithful or broadening the campaign to appeal to a larger group of voters. In the United States, there is a hard-core group of older Catholics who attend church frequently, and who have quite conservative positions on moral issues that are in line with the official Vatican doctrine. But this group constitutes way less than a majority of all Americans who identify themselves as Catholics. Another group attends church, but less frequently, and is also less conservative on moral issues. Finally, there is the group of younger Catholics who seldom or never attend church, and who have positions on moral issues that tend to be quite at odds with official church dogma.

Any organization tends to pay most attention to its loyal and most active members of course, and it would be logical if the Catholic Church were to continue to adopt positions that active churchgoers approved of. But Gallup data suggest that church attendance has been declining among Catholics over the last quarter-century, and if those younger Catholics who are not attending remain at odds with church doctrine on key issues, it is less likely that they can be persuaded to become more active in the years to come.

A Portrait of Catholics in U.S. Today

An analysis of more than 24,000 interviews conducted in 2004, in which Americans were asked their religious identification, indicates that Catholics -- as a group -- are not substantially different from non-Catholics on most demographic dimensions.

Catholic Representation
Within Demographic, Geographic, and Political Subgroups
Based on Gallup Polls Conducted in 2004

Catholic

Non-Catholic

%

%

Men

24

76

Women

24

76

East

37

63

Midwest

26

74

South

16

84

West

22

78

HS or less

23

77

Some college

24

76

College grad

27

73

Postgrad

25

75

Less than $20,000

20

80

$20,000 - <$30,000

20

80

$30,000 - < $50,000

24

76

$50,000 - < $75,000

25

75

$75,000 +

28

72

Non-Hispanic white

24

76

Non-Hispanic Black

7

93

White Hispanic

58

42

Black Hispanic

40

60

Asian

23

77

Other race/DK

30

70

Refused race

8

92

18-29 years

25

75

30-49 years

25

75

50-64 years

23

77

65+ years

24

77

Republican

23

77

Independent

24

76

Democrat

26

74

Conservative

23

77

Moderate

27

74

Liberal

22

78

In particular, there are no significant differences by age or gender in identification with the Catholic Church, and very small differences by most other dimensions.

The exceptions are as follows:

  • Americans living in the East are significantly more likely to be Catholics than in the other three major regions of the country. Americans living in the South are significantly less likely to be Catholics.
  • Catholics are slightly more highly represented in higher-income categories than they are in lower-income categories.
  • Hispanics are much more likely to be Catholics than non-Hispanic whites and blacks, although more than 4 in 10 Hispanics are not Catholics.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in 2002, 2003 and 2004, as noted in the tables. The margin of errors associated with these data varies depending on the size of the samples involved. For detailed margin of error information, please contact Gallup.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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