American Catholics have by and large remained loyal to the core teachings and sacraments of their faith, but increasingly tune out the hierarchy on issues of sexual morality, according to a new study released Oct. 24.
The sweeping survey shows that over the last quarter-century, U.S. Catholics have become increasingly likely to say that individuals, not church leaders, have the final say on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce and remarriage.
That trend holds true across generational and ideological divides, and even applies to weekly Mass attenders, according to the survey, which has been conducted every six years since 1987.
“It’s the core creedal sacramental issues that really matter to American Catholics, more than the external trappings of church authority,” said Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and a co-author of the report, in releasing the report at the National Press Club.
At the same time, the authors note, Catholic loyalty and identity remain remarkably strong, even as 83 percent of Catholics say the clergy sexual abuse scandal has hurt the bishops’ moral and political credibility.
“By and large, Catholics like being Catholic,” said co-author Mary Gautier of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The report identified two-thirds of U.S. Catholics as “moderately committed,” a group that inched up in size as the share of “highly committed” has shrunk from 27 percent in 1987 to 19 percent this year.
More than half (56 percent) say they would “never leave” the Catholic Church, and one in three say it is unlikely they would leave. Three-quarters of respondents said “being Catholic is a very important part of who I am.”
Across the board, Catholics tend to agree on four key markers ― the resurrection of Jesus (73 percent), helping the poor (67 percent), devotion to the Virgin Mary (64 percent), and the centrality of the sacraments (63 percent) ― as core to their Catholicism.
Opposition to abortion (40 percent) and to same-sex marriage (35 percent), and the authority of the Vatican (30 percent) and support for a celibate, all-male clergy (21 percent) were further down the list.
The issue of homosexuality showed one of the largest gaps between the pulpit and the pews. The portion of Catholics who say church leaders have “the final say” on homosexuality has plunged by half, from 32 percent to 16 percent, over the past 25 years, while those who say individuals make the final call has shot up from 39 percent to 57 percent.
Dillon noted that other issues have remained relatively stable, which leads her to conclude that Catholics are taking their cues from the larger culture, much like they did on birth control.
“They’ve made up their own minds on that issue and I think they see same-sex marriage in the same way,” she said. “It’s reflective of the culture but also indicative of Catholic autonomy.”
The survey also confirms that American Catholicism is also increasingly Latino, with about a third of Catholics in the United States identifying as Hispanic ― a figure that has tripled in size in the past 25 years.
Even as Catholic loyalty persists, weekly Mass attendance continued to decline, from 44 percent to 31 percent. Those who go less than once a month grew, from 26 percent to 47 percent.
“Monthly Mass has become the new weekly,” Dillon said. “Catholics are still remaining in touch with the sacraments and the Mass even though they’re not saying they need to go because it’s an externally imposed mandate from the hierarchy.”
Ironically, while the bishops may not appreciate the growing distance between the pulpit and the pew, that gap may have helped shield American Catholicism from some of the fallout from the abuse scandal.
Roughly one in three Catholics give the bishops good-to-excellent marks in handling the crisis, with everyone else giving them poor-to-fair marks. Those numbers are only slightly better for weekly Mass-goers.
The loosening ties to the authority of the hierarchy may also parallel a diminishing commitment to the poor and to parish life.
In the 2011 survey, 60 percent of Catholics said you could be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor, up from 44 percent in 2005. Similarly, three-quarters (74 percent) said you could be a good Catholic without donating time or money to a parish, up from 58 percent six years earlier.
Even among the “highly committed” Catholics, the importance of helping the poor fell from 39 percent to 30 percent in the past six years, which co-author William D’Antonio of Catholic University attributed to a “recession that they weren’t confronting in 2005.”
The survey also shows U.S. Catholics to be as discerning about their political leaders as they are about their bishops.
Some 57 percent of Catholics say they identify to some degree as Democrats, compared to 40 percent for the GOP. In recent elections Catholic voters have alternately backed George W. Bush and Barack Obama, confirming them as a large and crucial swing vote.
The new survey indicates that Catholics in the pews will continue to make up their own mind in the ballot box, as well as the bedroom.
Views on abortion and care for the poor continue to be the chief markers dividing Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans. Nearly half (48 percent) of Republicans said the church’s teaching against abortion was very important, compared to just 35 percent of Democrats.
Catholic Democrats, on the other hand, were more likely than Republicans to say helping the poor was a religious priority, by a 72-61 percent margin.
The online survey of 1,400 adult Catholics (with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points) was conducted by D’Antonio, Gautier and Dillon in cooperation with the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly.