Public Religion Research Institute misleads on Catholic attitudes

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The “Public Religion Research Institute” released a fact sheet a few weeks ago on the attitudes of Roman Catholics which had the mainstream media swooning. It found that majorities of Catholics disagree with church teachings same-sex marriage and contraception. It also found that White Catholics were more likely than not to believe abortion should be legal “in all or most cases.” It also found that 60 percent of Catholics feel the church places too much emphasis on sexual issues and should instead focus on issues pertaining to social justice. Furthermore, about 60 percent of Catholics also believe that the church should either “adjust traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

However, anyone with a passing familiarity with survey research knows that there is a significant problem with this survey and others like it. Namely, it lumps all self- identified Catholics together. It does not draw distinctions between Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis and those who attend less often. Both scholars of public opinion and survey research professionals know that church attendance is far better predictor of opinions on issues — particularly social issues — than one’s faith tradition. Furthermore, there is a substantial body of research which finds that frequent Mass attendees are likely to agree with church teachings.

Indeed, last month Univision surveyed Catholics from a range of different countries on a range of issues. They found that Catholics from Africa and the Philippines were much more likely to support church teachings than Catholics who reside in either Europe or the United States. More importantly, Univision helpfully broke down their findings between “frequent” and “infrequent” Mass attendees. In the United States, Catholics who attended Mass frequently were about 20 percentage points more likely than infrequent Mass attendees to support church teachings on a range of issues — including women becoming priests, divorce and remarriage, and same sex marriage. Additionally, frequent Mass attendees were twice as likely as infrequent Mass attendees to believe that abortion should “not be allowed at all.”

Fact sheets like the one published by “The Public Religion Research Institute” are often cited by media outlets. They enjoy countering the moral authority of the Bishops by pointing out that a significant numbers of Catholics do not believe in various church teachings. Now it is true that even many consistent Mass attendees do not support the church’s position on artificial contraception. There are also some surveys which show growing support for same-sex marriage among those who attend Mass on a weekly basis. That said, frequent Mass attendees both support church teachings and express satisfaction with the direction of the Catholic Church at a rate that is far higher than what mainstream media reports would indicate.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

MICHAEL J. NEW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the Research and Education Arm of the Susan B. Anthony List. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Dartmouth College, Dr. New received a master’s degree in statistics and a doctorate in political science from Stanford University in 2002. Before coming to Michigan, Dr. New worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard-MIT Data Center and later taught at The University of Alabama. Dr. New researches and writes about the social science of pro-life issues. He gives presentations on both the positive impact of pro-laws and the gains in public support for the pro-life position. He is a frequent blogger on National Review Online's "The Corner." Dr. New's study pro-life legislation was recently published by State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Four of his other studies on the effects of pro-life legislation have been published by the Heritage Foundation and another study was published by Family Research Council in 2008.

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