Who Speaks for American Catholics?

Last week during my interview on the Nick Givas Radio Show, the host, himself a conservative Catholic, asserted that the Obama administration has offended American Catholics by mandating that health insurance plans cover contraception, and now has a duty to placate them by making whatever legislative changes they demand. I only had time for a brief response to that, so I want to expand on it today.

Now, I’ll agree that the Catholic hierarchy – the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, the presidents of Catholic universities and other such religious institutions – have asserted that requiring employee health insurance plans to cover contraception is a violation of their religious freedom. (Note: I agree that they’ve claimed this. I don’t agree that it’s actually a violation of their First Amendment rights, for the obvious reason that the religious beliefs of an employer don’t confer a right to dictate his employees’ access to health care. But that’s a topic for another post.)

However, this argument deceptively conflates this small, unrepresentative group of men with the feelings of American Catholics in general. There are, at most, a few hundred or thousand men who control the church as an institution and who are the driving force behind these lawsuits (there’s a total of 441 active or retired bishops in the United States), whereas there are almost 70 million self-identified American Catholics. How does this far larger group of people feel about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and all the other modern advances that the bishops rage against?

We can start with this widely cited 2011 study from Guttmacher, which found that 98% of Catholic women have ever used a contraceptive method other than NFP, in defiance of the church’s decrees. Granted, this total would include any woman who’s ever had sex using a condom, even once. But that fact should offer the church little comfort: the same study found that, among women who are currently sexually active and not attempting to conceive, 87% of Catholics are using contraceptive methods other than NFP. (If you’re wondering how Catholic apologists try to deal with this fact, consider this response, which huffed that the survey was of women aged between 15 and 44, “so it could say nothing about women between 45 and 100″. Something tells me that birth control isn’t quite as much of a concern for women between 45 and 100.)

These overwhelming totals, which are identical to the numbers in the population at large, show that lay Catholics are near-unanimous in their rejection of the church hierarchy’s teachings which ban all forms of birth control. And they’re willing to say so openly: according to Gallup, 82% of Catholics say that contraceptive use is “morally acceptable”. As I wrote in 2012:

All the bishops’ loud and unanimous insistence that not using birth control is essential to Catholicism has done nothing to budge this consensus. Seldom in the history of any church has any doctrine been taught so fiercely and been obeyed by so few.

How about abortion? The Catholic church hierarchy is so loud and fervent in its opposition to abortion, you’d think their viewpoint must surely have trickled down to lay Catholics. But you’d be wrong. Another Guttmacher study, this one conducted in the mid-1990s, found that Catholic women have abortions at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Specifically, based on a survey of about 10,000 women who had abortions, it found that “Catholic women have an abortion rate 29% higher than Protestant women”. An article on Beliefnet calls it “The Catholic Abortion Paradox“. And again, as with contraception, lay Catholic support for choice is readily visible in opinion polls. 55% of Catholics and 63% of white Catholics oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

Although same-sex marriage isn’t part of the current batch of Obamacare lawsuits, it’s another issue where the church hierarchy and the public diverge. Officials in the Catholic hierarchy are often heard to assert that greater legal recognition and support for same-sex unions tramples on their religious freedom. But according to a poll from March of last year, American Catholics support same-sex marriage rights, 54 percent to 38 percent. (This is a turnaround from as recently as 2008, when those numbers were reversed.)

Last but not least, we come to the sticking point, the issue that’s motivated such a blizzard of lawsuits: whether or not employers should be allowed to opt out of providing any health care to employees that offends the employer’s religious beliefs. And here again, the bishops espouse a position that’s soundly rejected by their own flock:

58% of all Catholics agree employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception… a majority of voters, including a majority of Catholics, don’t believe Catholic hospitals and universities should be exempted from providing the benefit.

In citing all these facts, I’m not saying that Catholics are uniquely or unusually progressive. Rather, their opinions mirror the opinions of the population as a whole, which is just what you’d expect: American Catholicism as a group is much too large and diverse to impose any kind of ideological homogeneity on it. It’s the tiny handful of Catholic hierarchs, and their apologists, who are out of step with everyone else and who remain stubbornly stuck in the past, refusing to give up archaic doctrines that are now widely recognized as immoral and rejected by everyone else.

Of course, this raises the question of why the church hierarchs are so determined to forge ahead with a course of action that’s widely rejected by their own membership – but then, we know the answer to that. A better question is whether a day will come when lay Catholics realize that their money in the collection plate is being used to support political causes which most of them strongly disagree with – and if and when that day comes, what they’ll decide to do about it.

Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
The Rebirth of Nullification in Alabama
Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign
What’s Behind the Appeal of ISIS?
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Lagerbaer

    Very funny indeed.

    In Germany, the bishops themselves recently conducted a survey regarding their flock’s sexuality, and were apparently so shocked by the results that they didn’t make all of them public…

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    It has also been pointed out that many Catholic organizations either had insurance in place that covered contraception voluntarily, or had complied without argument with state-level requirements that contraception be covered. Somehow only the national requirement was an issue…

  • GubbaBumpkin

    These overwhelming totals, which are identical to the numbers in the
    population at large, show that lay Catholics are near-unanimous in their
    rejection of the church hierarchy’s teachings which ban all forms of
    birth control.

    I’ll save seats for them in Hell.

    The Holy Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy. It places its leadership on questions of faith and morals in His Royal Popeness, not in demographic surveys. According to the gospels, Jesus H. Christ gave to St. Peter, the bishop of Rome, the power to determine moral standards not just on Earth, but in Heaven as well (Matt 18:18). According to the doctrine of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, this charge of moral leadership passes to subsequent bishops of Rome (aka popes).

  • Jason Wexler

    One of the issues I find of concern when dealing with statistics involving religion, is that there are some categories that are ill defined or oft ignored. I know this bothers a lot of my fellow atheists when I talk about it, but not everyone who claims to belong to a particular religion actually believes in either the theology or dogma of that religion. Many people are willing to acknowledge this phenomenon as it pertains to Jews, referring to a difference between secular or cultural Jews as opposed to religious Jews ( http://www.adherents.com/Na/Na_410.html#2175 ). Conservatives are also very much aware of this issue in their own faith groups referring to differences as being the churched versus the un-churched (Arthur Brook ( http://www.amazon.com/Who-Really-Cares-Compassionate-Conservatism-ebook/dp/B004VRP37S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391015503&sr=8-1&keywords=who+really+gives ) is my primary source on this but I’ve seen it referenced elsewhere).

    So that premise laid I am wondering how many of the self identified Catholics are religious Catholics versus secular or cultural Catholics? If 90% of the pro contraception Catholics are merely cultural Catholics, and 90% of the anti-contraception Catholics are religious/churched Catholics, than is Adams point still valid? I agree that some of the more overwhelming numbers Adam presents suggests that on those issues the hierarchy is out of touch with self identified Catholics both the laity and the apostates. However on the statistics regarding employer mandation and same-sex marriage the somewhat more tepid majority may in fact represent a secular vs. religious break down. In which case the hierarchy of the church is still relevant.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Someone needs to ask these guys if they’d be okay with an atheist employer forbidding their employees to donate any part of their paychecks to the church. My guess is that that would be different because ahem hruff hruff blabla mumble.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Wait, wait, wait. Seriously? The pope can determine moral standards in Heaven? Why isn’t he doing anything about God, then?

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I agree that some of the more overwhelming numbers Adam presents
    suggests that on those issues the hierarchy is out of touch with self
    identified Catholics both the laity and the apostates.

    Given what I included in my other comment, you may be backwards about who is out of touch with whom. I think that “Liberal” Catholics who disagree with His Royal Popeness on major issues of faith* and morals should vote with their feet and leave the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    * How many of them actually believe in transsubstantiation, for example.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Ask your favourite Catholic.

  • Jason Wexler

    Whether we call them Secular Catholics, Cultural Catholics, Apostate Catholics, Un-Churched Catholics or Catholics-in-Name-Only, many of the self identified Catholics in those surveys and in fact many of the self identified members of other religions or denominations have walked away from the churches or other institutions which hold those values. There is little more that people who fall in the above category can do to change those institutions they’ve already abandoned, even if they take that final step and stop identifying with them and start calling themselves “Nones” or even in many cases more honestly atheists.

    In some respects it ought not to matter whether or not Catholics in general or even more specifically “true” Catholics agree with the hierarchy on the matters being discussed, because when everything is said and done it isn’t as if we take into consideration the opinions of murderers or thieves or drug dealers when we pass laws which they dislike and impedes their values. If the contraception requirement for insurance is a good thing to include in law then who cares if there people who don’t like it and are offended by it?

    As a brief aside does anyone here know if it is grammatically appropriate to capitalize the word “none(‘s)” when describing the newly identified demographic group of people who claim no religious identification? I would like to be consistent on that point, by the way are atheist and agnostic supposed to be capitalized?

  • Pofarmer

    Any links?

  • Pofarmer

    The problem is, the Catholic church uses everybody who identifies as Catholic, no matterthe Category, to bolster it’s arguments that it speaks for x million U.S. Catholics. They claim to speak for all, yet listen to none.

  • Lagerbaer
  • J-D

    Looking at it from one perspective, there’s the question ‘Why do the leaders of an organisation promote so vigorously positions which are rejected by the bulk of the membership?’. Looking at it from another perspective, there’s the question ‘Why do so many people continue to adhere to an organisation that promotes so vigorously positions which they, the adherents, reject?’. It’s the latter question that interests me more and which has (or so it seems to me) less obvious answers. The answers are there, I think, but I also think they require more insight to pick out.

  • Doomedd

    As an ex catholic, I’ll try to answer.

    I think Catholics don’t have
    denominations as protestants have. Catholics can’t chose a church
    because, as far as they are concerned, Catholicism is THE church. If
    you are raised catholic and disagree with the pope, you can try to
    agree with the pope anyway, try to rationalize the disagreement or
    leave the religion. Bear in mind that joining a mainline church is
    still leaving Catholicism.

  • Doomedd

    Catholics authorities consider that I
    am one one them despite the fact that I asked an apostasy. Once you
    are baptized, you are “tainted” forever. I even heard that census
    Canada could “correct” you if you answer you are not a catholic.

    Hell, I read of zombies plague easier
    to cure than Catholicism.

    Seriously, Catholics authorities want
    to have as mush political power as possible. They need to inflate
    their membership as high as possible. They need to hide opposing
    opinions by claiming that the opinion of RCC is the opinion of all
    RCC members.

    Or if you prefer, RCC authorities want
    the strength of numbers and the cohesion of few members.

  • J-D

    It is not consistent with any standard of usage that I am familiar with to give automatic initial capitals to ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. I am also unfamiliar with use of the word ‘none’ as a noun to mean ‘person of no religion’.

  • Jason Wexler

    If atheist and agnostic aren’t normally capitalized then I suspect “nones” isn’t either.

    The use of the word “nones” to describe people of no religious affiliation started I believe around 2010 or 2011 when a number of polls and surveys were released which showed interesting data about the group, and the mainstream American media adopted “nones” as a shorthand to describe it. Although it may be possible that they picked it up from a pre-existing source… one of the a fore mentioned surveys was from work Stephen Prothero was doing and he may have coined the term “nones” at an earlier date.

  • Jason Wexler

    The Catholic church like many national religious organizations will over-inflate their membership regardless. I know I happen to be listed three times in a registry of evangelical churches because of the three instances I was polite and went to church with classmates and signed the guest book in the church, despite the fact that I “deconverted” from neo-paganism. They are slow to remove from their rolls people who leave the church or have died or may have been added in error (I am glad I never went to Mormon temple, where they would baptize me in abstentia). Further I believe it is very likely that many of the new “nones” that we have been seeing are either late life converters from identifying as cultural members of the group or newly adult children of people who identify as members of a religion for cultural reasons. It may take decades yet before reliable data showing that phenomenon is in evidence in the mean time we do well to push the distinction of cultural affiliation (or which ever name should applied from the possible choice above) and faithful affiliation to religious groups, so that people understand that they can stop identifying and that the churches claims are b.s.

  • JPC

    I was a convert to Catholicism and worked in the church as a cantor ans catechist for years. It was this disparity (among many other things) between the laity and clergy that opened my eyes to the smoke and mirrors of the Catholic Church. In fact, I maintain that very few clerics believe the faith. In over a dozen years I never heard a homily on sexual morality, hell-fire or pro-life matters. In fact, even the fundamental platform belief in the resurrection was often taught as metaphor on Easter.

    As you rightly bring out, Catholicism is warmed over humanism dressed up in church terminology. And Catholics are indistinguishable from the general population. In America many of the clergy are closeted homosexuals. The laity looks the other way and could care less. Lines for confession on Saturday morning usually consist of a few white-haired ladies out of a parish numbering into the thousands.

    And yet, with all that said, Catholics still give their money to this institution. For most I think it’s an empty observance of baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral masses ans a good excuse to get together for breakfast on Sunday morning with lived ones and neighbors.

  • J-D

    I’m sure that’s true, as far as it goes, but it’s not a complete answer. You write ‘If you … disagree with the Pope, you can … leave the religion.’ Obviously, that’s exactly what some people do. The question is, given that possibility, why do so many people _not_ leave the religion? being that they’re people who don’t just disagree with the Pope a little bit but who reject, unambiguously, positions which are consistently and vigorously promoted by the Church hierarchy. Putting the point in dialogue form:

    Interlocutor: Why do you stay in the church, when it keeps saying and doing all this stuff that you disagree with so much?
    Catholic: Because if I didn’t stay in the Church, I’d have to stop being a Catholic.
    Interlocutor: Okay, then, so but why don’t you stop being a Catholic?

    As a matter of fact, although it’s a little beside the main point, there are groups that have dissociated themselves from the Church hierarchy but still consider themselves Catholics, perhaps in some cases the only true Catholics: ‘Old Catholics’, ‘Sedevacantists’, and others (you can read about them on Wikipedia and no doubt elsewhere).

  • Azkyroth


  • Elizabeth

    Until very recently my parents attitude was “I will be God damned if any priest or Bishop is going to stand in the way of me and MY church!”

    There are at least six members of my extended family I know of who are Catholic, divorced, remarried and receive communion anyway. Even though they technically should not until their first spouse dies or they get an annulment.I never asked them about it because I think that would be rude, but I doubt they lose sleep about it. I think they would say something like “That’s a stupid rule, why would God not want me to receive communion?”

  • Elizabeth

    A better question is whether a day will come when lay Catholics realize
    that their money in the collection plate is being used to support
    political causes which most of them strongly disagree with – and if and
    when that day comes, what they’ll decide to do about it.

    Well what I did was, I left the church.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    So that premise laid I am wondering how many of the self identified Catholics are religious Catholics versus secular or cultural Catholics?

    A lot of them are Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, I’m sure. Frequent Mass attendance is strongly correlated with more conservative political positions, infrequent attendance with more liberal positions. But there’s a correlation-vs-causation issue here: it’s possible that the reason some Catholics aren’t more attached to the church is because they disagree with its politics and don’t like to be preached at every week.

    The other thing we should keep in mind is that, even if people are cultural Catholics with only limited ties to the faith, the church still happily counts them as members. In some cases, they’ve even stopped accepting requests to remove people’s names from the membership rolls (here’s one such case from Spain, for example, or another one from Ireland). Given that they’re so determined to cling to their members, we have every right to point out that said members’ beliefs utterly ignore and reject what the hierarchy teaches.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I have long felt like a total idiot because i believed that all my fellow Roman Catholic friends who continued to receive “communion” were obeying the rulings of our shared “cradle Catholic” faith. I will always feel betrayed by those who continue to pretend they are Roman Catholic while their brothers and sisters in their religion are denied the sacred supper that they all enjoy under false pretenses.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The Roman catholic Church enjoys many benefits based on our taxes, including being contractors that administer programs funded by our taxes. . Until this changes, they must obey the laws of our land. Period. Exclamation point!

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t think those people actually “get it.” They either think the Catholic Church is a democracy and that it will eventually change, or they think they are entitled to communion regardless of what the Church says, or they don’t understand Church teachings and don’t care to learn them.

    Look on wedding planning message boards, for example. A common question is “What do we tell the priest when we are both atheists but are only having a Catholic wedding for our families?”

  • J-D

    I’m sure that’s part of the answer, but it does also point to related questions. I can see how somebody can decide that the things about an organisation that they want to reject are outweighed by their reasons for wanting to stay with the organisation. But given there are some Catholics who are very much at odds with the hierarchy over multiple issues, I can’t help wondering what the reasons are that outweigh that to keep them in, and, more speculatively, how far (hypothetically) the hierarchy would have to go before those people would leave the church.

  • David Simon

    Are you sure about that? It sounds like the passage is saying that the same rules apply to both Heaven and Earth, which does not necessarily imply the stronger claim that one can manipulate Heaven’s rules by changing Earth’s.

  • Y. A. Warren

    It seems to be the RCC that doesn’t “get it” because they don’t care.

  • John

    “Officials in the Catholic hierarchy are often heard to assert that greater legal recognition and support for same-sex unions tramples on their religious freedom.”

    I have heard this, but I have yet to hear an decent explanation as to how their religious freedom is trampled on.

    Some years ago, I was discussing gay marriage with another Catholic, who told me that gay marriage was an affront to all marriages. So I asked him, “I’m married. How does gay marriage affect my marriage? Be specific.” He replied that of course, it did not affect any individual marriage. So I said, “You are telling me that it affects all marriages and no marriages simultaneously. That does not make sense.”

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” certainly sounds to me like heaven will respond to Peter’s decrees.

  • Jorge Agudelo

    These are very interesting polls. Does any one by chance has a source to similar information regarding protestant christians, or christians in general?

  • Lagerbaer