Public Religion Research Institute misleads on Catholic attitudes


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.


Categories:Church News Poll

  • Rich

    But Greg, you are not the majority if you believe the majority does not support marriage equality and does not support a larger role for women in the Church. I am not making this up and you know it. Even on this site we see polling that indicates the conservative Catholic position is shifting towards one of more inclusion and tolerance. This I why I believe we will see in our lifetime a USA Catholic Church that will recognize gay marriage and will have Women Priests. To many this is a dream come true; a truly welcoming Church that will thrive with so many loving, diverse families. The other branch will not thrive and time will take its toll.

  • Will

    Even many Catholics who attend Mass regularly question some of the teachings of the Church.

  • Rich

    I think the picture you lead with speaks volumes to the overwhelming message of the Public Religion Research Institute: a lone congregant (perhaps) in a sea of empty pews. The results are representative of the U.S. Aren’t you at all concerned with the state of the Church here?

  • morganB

    True, many Catholics whether they attend Mass regularly or not have evolved into the mentality of cafeteria Catholics.

    After nearly losing my first wife to church directions on birth control, I find it almost impossible that the following is true… “Mass attendees believe that abortion should “not be allowed at all.” I cannot get a straight answer whether the Catholic Church teaches that strict a rule? If they do, they are not Pro-Life, they are Pro-Fetus.

    When the woman’s life is in jeopardy due to, say, an ectopic pregnancy, the only “law” that should apply is that of her family, her doctor and her God.

    • Joshua Mercer

      In an ectopic pregnancy, the Church supports surgery to save the life of the mother (removal of the fallopian tube). This is not an abortion. Here’s a great article on it:

      • morganB

        I read the article and was very confused. The reference to Catholic moralists, who ever they are, make the call as to which of the three procedures the doctor will use. Not the woman and her doctor. If one reads the fine print all three result in an abortion. This position is not advertised by the church.

        All I can say is I am grateful being male. The poor woman faces a dilemma if her doctor does not proceed with the third option.


    I’m not sure such a bright line can be drawn between ” Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis and those who attend less often.” In the latter category are we talking about “Christmas and Easter Catholics” or those who manage to make it to mass once a month, or even people like me who show up four Sundays out of five? It seems to me there’s a big difference.

    • Rich

      Either way, you’re losing your populace. There is a reason for this. Is it so unfathomable that in time there will be two denominations of Catholics? I already see this in a number of congregations and in organizations like Catholics for Equality. You can dismiss them as cafeteria catholics but you doso at the peril of the arger Church.

      • GREG SMITH

        Rich~ In some ways we already have three denominations, at least in the U.S. The “traditionalists” who reject Vatican II (SSPX, “Independent chapels”, sedvacandists et. al) the “progressives” (Call to Action, Roman Catholic Womenpriests et. al) and the majority of us “mainstream” Catholics , lay and clergy trying to follow Christ in our parishes across the nation.



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