Preaching to Another Church's Choir?

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Practicing Protestants' moral views more consistent with Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has been in the spotlight in recent weeks following the passing of its former leader, Pope John Paul II, and the election of a new one, Pope Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church's teachings on moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, divorce, sex before marriage, and the death penalty are sometimes controversial given that many of the church's positions are deemed out of touch with modern societal norms. Even those who identify as Catholics in the United States hold views on moral issues that differ from church teachings.

As might be expected, though, Gallup Poll data confirm that committed Catholics are much more likely to share the church's views on moral issues than are non-committed Catholics. Gallup surveys also reveal that on many moral issues, practicing Protestants, as a group, are more likely than even practicing Catholics to hold traditional moral positions like those taught by the Catholic Church.

Each May, as part of the annual Values and Beliefs poll, Gallup asks Americans to rate the moral acceptability of a series of issues, such as abortion, divorce, and the death penalty. Combined data from the 2002-2004 polls* allows for a more in-depth look at the views by religious affiliation and level of commitment.

Life and Death Issues

The Catholic Church views human life as sacred and as such is officially opposed to any practices that are thought to prematurely end it, such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, and medical research using stem cells derived from human embryos. 

U.S. Catholics tend to be in step with the church's teaching on abortion -- 54% say abortion is morally wrong. But most Catholics depart from church teachings on the death penalty (only 32% say it is morally wrong) and stem cell research (39%), and nearly half stray on the area of doctor-assisted suicide (46%). 

Percentage of U.S. Catholics Who Find Practices Morally Wrong
by Frequency of Church Attendance

Issue

All Catholics
(N=760)

Attend weekly
(N=265)

Attend nearly weekly/
monthly
(N=224)

Seldom/
Never attend
(N=269)

%

%

%

 

Abortion

54

74

53

37

Death penalty

32

49

30

18

Doctor-assisted suicide

46

63

43

32

Medical research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos

39

56

36

28

However, in all cases, Catholics who attend church weekly are more likely to express views consistent with church teachings than Catholics who attend less frequently. That is the case even on the death penalty, something favored by roughly two in three Americans overall.

Marriage and Sex

The Catholic Church views marriage as a holy sacrament that is divinely ratified, and thus the union of man and woman cannot be dissolved. In fact, as a general rule, the Catholic Church does not allow divorced Catholics to remarry in the church unless they get their first marriages annulled. Similarly, the church preaches that sexual relations should only occur within marriages. These beliefs obviously allow no room for homosexual relations, something the church regards as a sin. 

Gallup's data show most U.S. Catholics do not hold views consistent with church teachings on sex and marriage. Only one in four say divorce is morally wrong, one in three say sex between an unmarried man and woman is wrong, and less than half say the same of having a baby outside marriage and homosexual relations. One notable exception is that Catholics -- like all Americans -- condemn extramarital affairs. 

Percentage of U.S. Catholics Who Find Practices Morally Wrong
by Frequency of Church Attendance

Issue

All Catholics
(N=760)

Attend weekly
(N=265)

Attend nearly weekly/
monthly
(N=224)

Seldom/
Never attend
(N=269)

%

%

%

%

Divorce

25

34

29

14

Sex between unmarried man and woman

32

52

34

13

Having a baby outside of marriage

42

54

44

31

Married men and women having an affair

91

92

91

91

Homosexual behavior

46

58

50

32

Just as on life and death issues, Catholics who attend church weekly are much more likely to express views consistent with the church's positions on sex and marriage, with the exception of divorce. A majority views premarital sex, conceiving a baby out of wedlock, and homosexual behavior as morally wrong. On these issues, Catholics who attend nearly weekly or monthly generally disagree with the church, but their opinions are closer to those of Catholics who attend every week than those who rarely or never go to mass. 

Practicing Catholics vs. Practicing Protestants

Centuries ago, Protestant denominations developed out of disagreements with the practices of the Catholic Church. Mainline Protestant denominations have produced scores of offshoot denominations over the years, most of which are much less hierarchical and much more democratic than the Catholic Church. As such, there is no single Protestant voice or set of teachings as exists in the Catholic Church. 

But because both are Christian faiths, there is some overlap in beliefs. The Gallup data show that the most committed Protestants' generally traditional views on moral issues dovetail with Catholic Church teachings on morality, even if those views are not necessarily based on the same doctrine. In fact, on most of the issues tested, practicing Protestants' moral views are more consistent with Catholic Church teachings than even the most committed Catholics' views. 

Percentage of Weekly Church-Attending
Catholics and Protestants Who Find Practices Morally Wrong

Issue

Catholics who attend church weekly
(N=265)

Protestants who attend church weekly
(N=515)

%

%

Abortion

74

78

Death penalty

49

29

Doctor-assisted suicide

63

73

Homosexual behavior

58

80

Sex between unmarried man and woman

52

75

Married men and women having an affair

92

96

Divorce

34

48

Medical research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos

56

55

Having a baby outside of marriage

54

75

For example, 80% of Protestants who attend church weekly say homosexual behavior is morally wrong, compared with 58% of Catholics who go to church each week. Protestants who attend church weekly are also much more likely to view extramarital sex as wrong (75% compared with 52% of practicing Catholics), having a baby outside marriage (75% to 54%), divorce (48% to 34%) and doctor-assisted suicide (73% to 63%).

The two groups express similar views on abortion and stem cell research, with majorities of practicing Catholics and Protestants opposed to both. 

Practicing Protestants (29%) are much less likely to view the death penalty as morally wrong than are practicing Catholics (49%), the one issue on which practicing Catholics convey views more similar to the Catholic teachings than practicing Protestants do. 

Of course, religion is not the sole influence on one's views on moral issues. In the United States, especially, moral issues have become politicized. Thus, one reason that practicing Protestants' views more closely adhere to generally conservative Catholic Church teachings is that the former group is more homogeneous (that is, conservative) politically. Sixty-two percent of Protestants who attend services weekly identify themselves as ideological conservatives, while 28% say they are moderate and 10% liberal. In contrast, a plurality of weekly attending Catholics, 45%, say they are ideologically moderate. Forty-one percent say they are conservative and 13% liberal. 

Practicing Catholics are as likely to say they are Democrats (40%) as Republicans (38%), while practicing Protestants are much more likely to be Republicans (46%) than Democrats (30%). 

Bottom Line

The Catholic Church's traditional views on moral issues are sometimes criticized for being too out of step with U.S. society's increasingly liberal moral outlook. However, Protestants with a strong commitment to their faith would find Catholic teachings right in line with their own moral outlooks. While U.S. Catholics as group do not necessarily adhere to the church's positions, practicing American Catholics and Protestants tend to agree with the substance of the moral messages coming from the church.   

*Results are based on aggregated data from telephone interviews drawn from nationally representative samples of approximately 1,000 respondents in polls conducted in early May 2002, 2003, and 2004. 

For results based on the total sample of 760 Catholics, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 265 Catholics who attend church weekly, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 224 Catholics who attend church nearly every week or monthly, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 269 Catholics who seldom or never attend church, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 515 Protestants who attend church weekly, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

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