The University of Chicago News Office
January 22, 1999 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

American Catholics are becoming less involved in the Church

Note to reporters: This is a report on attitudes among American Catholics gathered by researchers at the University of Chicago. The data is the most up-to-date information available on the subject. To contact researcher Tom W. Smith call 773-256-6288. If you have difficulty reaching him,call Julie Antelman at 773-256-6312 or William Harms, 773-702-8356 .

During the past three decades, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Roman Catholic has remained constant at 26 percent, while the percentage of people saying they are Protestant has dropped from 63 percent to 54 percent, according to data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. NORC also found the number of people expressing no religious preference during the period increased from 6 to 14 per cent (see Table 1).

“While Catholics have maintained their numbers, today they are less attached and less active in the church than they used to be,” said Tom W. Smith, Director of NORC’s General Social Survey. In the 1970s, 46 percent of Catholics said they were “strong” Catholics and 48 percent reported usually going to church each week. In 1998, only 37 percent described their attachment as “strong” and just 29 percent usually went to church every week. However, both attachments and attendance were up in 1998 from a three-decade low in 1996 (See Table 2).

In 1998, when asked what kind of Catholics they were, 26 percent self-identified as traditionalists, 32 percent as moderates, 27 percent as liberals and 14.5 percent thought that none of these descriptions fit them.

“A reason for the decline in loyalty could be the disagreements the Catholic laity has with the church’s doctrine on many important issues,” Smith said.

These are the results of the 1998 General Social Survey on questions relating to Catholic attitudes:

  • In response to seven items on allowing abortion, 18 percent took the pro-life position of opposing abortion for each reason, 51 percent took an intermediate position of approving of abortions for some reasons and disapproving for other reasons and 31 percent took a consistent pro-choice position.
  • 67 percent favored capital punishment for murder.
  • 51 percent of Catholics feel that homosexuality is “always wrong.”
  • 48 percent thought premarital sex is “not wrong at all” and only 21 percent thought it is “always wrong.”
  • Rather than being social conservatives, Catholics are usually as liberal or more liberal than Protestants.
  • Protestants and Catholics are equally pro-choice regarding abortion (31 percent).
  • Catholics are more accepting of homosexual, premarital and extramarital sex than are Protestants. Among Catholics, 33 percent say homosexuality is not wrong at all (compared to 19 percent for Protestants), 48 percent said that premarital sex is not wrong at all (compared to 33 percent for Protestants), and 3 percent said extramarital sex is not wrong at all, as compared with to 2 percent for Protestants.
  • On the subject of birth control, 57 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of Protestants say that birth control should be available to teenagers even if their parents’ don’t approve.
  • 88 per cent of Catholics and 84 percent of Protestants favored sex education.
  • 70 percent of Catholics favored euthanasia compared with 65 percent of Protestants.

These figures are from the 1972-1998 General Social Surveys (GSSs) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The GSSs were in-person interviews of adults 18 and older. Twenty-two separate samples with a total of 38,116 responses, including 9,755 Catholics, were conducted between 1972 and 1998.
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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