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 Monday (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.