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What Is An American Catholic?

On the eve of Pope Francis's visit, Pew's portrait of his US flock

The Washington Post writes about Pew’s big new survey of the US Catholic landscape. Among the takeaways:

Although an overwhelming majority of Catholics (nine in ten) believe in the concept of sin, they don’t seem to agree on what, precisely, constitutes one. Fifty-seven percent of Catholics think it’s a sin to have an abortion, compared to 48 percent of the general U.S. population who say the same. Forty-four percent think homosexual behavior is sinful (about the same say this among the general public). And just 17 percent of Catholics believe its a sin to use contraceptives, while 21 percent say the same of getting a divorce.

And although those percentages are higher for those who attend Mass weekly — 73 percent of weekly churchgoers say that abortion is a sin, for instance — the numbers are still pretty low on the issue of contraception: just 31 percent of weekly Mass attendees say the use of artificial contraception is a sin.

So the faith doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in the moral beliefs of most of its adherents, compared with the general US population. More:

Despite those disagreements between U.S. Catholics and church teaching, the poll does not indicate that a change in that teaching would lead more Catholics to “revert” to their faith than do already.

Cultural and ex- Catholics gave a variety of answers when asked why they decided to leave Catholicism, and no consensus emerges from those reasons that could point to any one factor driving away those who were raised Catholic from the faith. A 2008 Pew study asked a similar question, and found that fewer than one in four Catholics said that the rule banning priests from marrying was an important reason for leaving Catholicism. About 3 in 10 said that the church’s teachings on abortion and remarriage were important.

Far more common, in that 2008 survey, were those who said they simply stopped believing the church’s overall teachings, or gradually drifted away from Catholicism, or said that their spiritual needs weren’t being met.

This is a pretty strong piece of evidence against the idea that if Pope Francis (or any pope) liberalized church teaching and practice in certain controversial areas, it would stop the bleeding and bring back Catholics who have left the church. All it would stand to do is to discourage the core of true believers. In fact, the Pew survey appears to indicate that the teachings of the Church don’t have a lot to do with the way many individual Catholics — even regular churchgoers — think and live. Meaning this: people who don’t agree with the Church’s teachings in this or that area don’t allow that to push them out if they want to be there, and those who don’t want to be there haven’t made that choice because of dissent on specific teachings.

More, from Pew’s own story about its report. Notice that whether or not you go to mass regularly makes a meaningful difference in the views you take … but that still, a surprising (to me) percentage of weekly massgoers dissent from basic Church teaching. For example, 54 percent of weekly massgoers think living together outside of marriage is not sinful:


The results of this survey show why so many Catholic laypeople are thinking about some form of the Benedict Option. It’s not that they don’t want their kids to be “tainted” by unbelieving Catholics, but that they want their kids to know what a Catholic is, and what their profession of faith requires of them. And when even large numbers of the people they see at mass every week reject the Church’s teaching in key areas, they’re not seeing it around them.

If you were the Pope, what would you do to address this less-than-ideal situation?