Survey Says Catholics Are Becoming Less Catholic

The National Catholic Reporter has put out their fifth survey cataloguing Catholic attitudes and practices in America.

We should be throwing a party to celebrate these results.

When asked what aspects of Catholicism are important to them, most Catholics fall in line with typical Christian teachings, but they take a Honey Badger approach to what the Vatican tells them. In fact, only 30% of Catholics say “Vatican authority” is important to them. What about priestly celibacy? Not a big deal — only 21% think it’s relevant. Even opposition to gay marriage and opposition to abortion scored 35% and 40% in terms of “importance,” respectively.

Although the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been highly involved over several decades in articulating the church’s opposition to abortion, fewer than half of American Catholics, 40 percent, say that the church’s teachings opposing abortion are very important to them personally. And even fewer say that the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage (35 percent) and the death penalty (29 percent) are very important. Similarly, Catholics also see the current structure of the church, despite its centuries-old tradition, as relatively unimportant to their identity as Catholics.

To corroborate that, Highly Committed Catholics (“those who said that the church was the most important or among the most important parts of their life, [and] who attended church once a week or more often”) were asked whether one could be a “good Catholic” even if you didn’t follow Church teachings on certain issues

For example, can you be a good Catholic even if you use birth control? The Pope says no. But 60% of the serious Catholics say yes! (That’s a slight drop from 2005, but it’s still a *huge* percentage.)

Here’s an important one: When you have questions about sex, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, or divorce, who has the final say in what’s right and wrong?

Fewer than 20% of Catholics look solely to the church for moral guidance in these matters! In most cases, more than half of all Catholics just figure it out on their own. (And sometimes, they trust both themselves and the Church Leadership.) But isn’t that great? The Church isn’t seen as the arbiter in all things right and wrong! They’re just one voice out there — and one that’s losing ground. They’ve made so many blunders in the past that even their own sheep won’t look to them when grappling with major social issues.

What about the Eucharist? Do Catholics understand that they’re supposed to believe the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ?

50% of Catholics don’t even know that. They think it’s only symbolic. In other words, half the Catholics in America don’t know one of the most important beliefs about their own faith.

But maybe it’s not surprising that religious people don’t understand their own religions. In fact, if they did, most would probably laugh it off. (“There’s no way my faith is that crazy.”)

So they asked Catholics a question, “Do you believe that at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ?” Forget the Church’s teachings. Do you believe that happens?

37% of Catholics said no!

Unbelievable.

So what does all this data tell us?

We’re living in a world full of Cultural Catholics — Cafeteria Catholics — who pick and choose what parts of the faith they can accept and which are expendable. They don’t buy into the Church’s outright lies, but they might appreciate a lot of the spiritual guidance. They have that “special feeling” when they walk into a church, even if they don’t believe everything the priest tells them. They like the community, but not the bullshit. They know Church thinking is stuck in the past but they’re moving forward with the times despite clinging to the Catholic title — even if there’s a contradiction there.

It also means those of us who criticize the Church, point out the obvious lies, mock the silly beliefs, castigate the Church for its moral failings, and make the case for secular alternatives to the supposed “benefits” of religion are doing a wonderful job.

We still have a long way to go but it’s wearing off on a lot of Catholics.

Eventually, maybe they’ll muster up the courage to shed the label entirely.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    It also means those of us who criticize the Church, point out the
    obvious lies, mock the silly beliefs, castigate the Church for its moral failings, and make the case for secular alternatives to the supposed “benefits” of religion are doing a wonderful job.We still have a long way to go but it’s wearing off on a lot of Catholics.

    Certainly I think it’s useful to point out hypocrisy and immorality within the church. However my hunch is that any effect the active atheist community has pales in comparison to the tireless work of the church itself in pushing away members.

    Every time the church authorities put up a public outcry about gay rights while staying silent on issues like poverty, their “flock” notices. They also notice when a Catholic adoption agency would rather give up on helping vulnerable and orphaned children altogether rather than even consider placing them in same-sex couples, even as they willingly place them in non-Catholic homes. And I bet they sure as hell notice when a priest is found to have been sexually abusing children for decades and the church acts exactly how you would expect from a massive corporation with no ethical principles and not from a group of divinely inspired servants of god.

    The church drives members away all by themselves, by showing their priorities and ethics to be at complete odds with those of many in their flock. Though we should keep pointing it out, I think our job should especially be being visible to those already drifting away, so that they know there’s an option for community and morality outside the church.

  • Anonymous

    It’s because the church doesn’t really punish laity and ordinary believers anymore. In some cases, they can exclude them from Communion, but that’s about it. It’s not really a punishment. If you’re a priest, theologian, professor, author? Then yes, they’ll defrock you, fire you, revoke your teaching license or forbid you from publishing. They have means against “professional” Catholics. But normal believers? Nothing

    As for transubstantiation. That was never fully explained when I was a kid. It’s easy to think it’s symbolic. My father’s side of the family is Protestant. I’ve been to their services often enough. You can tell you’re in a Protestant church by the way it’s decorated, but otherwise the differences are extremely superficial. Yeah, the words are different during the ritual, but that’s to be expected even if effect were supposed to be the same. Unless it’s explained to you, or you pay lots of attention you couldn’t tell.

    • http://dnivie.livejournal.com/ Eivind

      You’re right, but I’m fairly sure that cause and effect is reversed: It’s not that they don’t punish anymore and thus people stop thinking they’re right. It’s that people no longer consider them to be right, thus they’ve lost a large fraction of their power to punish.

      I’m pretty sure that most priests are well-aware that the more time they spend talking about all the batshit crazy ideas the church has, but most catholics actually disagree with, the *less* people will bother even showing up for the service. (most don’t anyway, offcourse, since most catholics reject most of what the church offers)

      Talking of the importance of celibate priests, and abstinence from sex before marriage, will at this point, just make people think about all the abuse-cases, and thus expose them as the hypocrites they are. Better to say nothing controversial, and hope people forget.

  • Zac

    What do you mean by a “Honey Badger approach”? Honey badgers are violent assholes.

    • Anonymous

      Honey badger don’t care

    • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

      Honey badgers are unique amongst the animal kingdom in their impressive capacity to not care. 

      (At this point, you should probably google “honey badger doesn’t care”)

    • Trace

      I had to check that too. Always learning a thing or two.

  • Anonymous

    By all mean, help the poor and the unfortunate. We sometimes give the religious crap, but they are organized and sometimes do good things. (It shouldn’t come with a side of bible, but whatever.)

    If their “morality” was strong advice for their members, that’s fine. But so often it’s a supposed benchmark for all of society. Be smart, safe, careful and most people are fine.

  • http://twitter.com/enuma enuma

    It’s pretty easy to see that Catholics are no longer following many of the Catholic Church’s teachings.  All you have to do is look at the average family size now versus the average family size 50 years ago to see that the Church’s stance on birth control is being openly flouted.

    When my parents were growing up, it was not uncommon for them to see families with 10 or more children at church.  No one so much as blinked at families that large.  My mom knew a family with 22 kids.  My dad, who was one of 6 children, came from an average sized family compared to the rest of his parish.  My fiance’s mom was one of 17 kids.  They were considered a larger family, but they weren’t thought to be so unusual that they should get their own TV show.

    I can’t think of a single family in my parents’ parish that has more than four kids today.  The average is between 2 and 3.  Priests have to know their parishioners are using birth control, but no one says anything.  The ability of priests to meddle in the personal lives of their parishioners has been greatly reduced.  If people don’t like what they’re being told, they’ll just leave, and right now the RCC can’t afford to lose those donations.  They’ve got child-rape settlements to pay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    It also means many of these people should look a little more deeply (just as I did 20 some odd years ago) and ask themselves if they don’t believe in the tenets of the Catholic church, “Why am I still Catholic”.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    So they asked Catholics a question, “Do you believe that at the
    consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become
    the body and blood of Jesus Christ?

    To clarify the position of the Holy Roman Catholic Church on this issue: they proclaim that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus H. Christ, but not materially. I.e. they believe that the supernatural is true reality. Believing in material transsubstantiation would just be silly – and open to disproof.

    • Anonymous

      Wrong. They believe that it materially becomes the body and blood. However, the change is  substantial, not accidental .

      • Anonymous

        It’s that kind of bullshit that results in only ivory tower theologians caring about it.

        Your average believer doesn’t, no matter weather it’s real or only symbolic for them. In practice, you can hardly tell a difference between the communion in a mainline Protestant and a Catholic church.

        There are rather severe high level disagreements about performing ecumenical services, but the people who want those services don’t see what the fuss is about

        • Anonymous

          Once these were issues that the average believer did care about. So much so that they fought wars over it. Now they care about different things, and most don’t care enough about any religious issue to kill or die over them. Progress.

        • Moneybags

          Of course, because a lot of the “moves” Rome made was in response to Protestantism (up to and including today). Lutherans believe in consubstantiation, which as you say is a difference so insignificant that no one in their right mind would care.

  • Trace

    I could have told you that ;)

    Once a catholic always a catholic…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      Not true, though they slammed the door on the official exit. Presumably worried that too many people were taking it. They need their artificial number of (babies splashed)-(bodies buried) because if they have to count (bums on seats) they’ll lose their influence.

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

        So true. Its REAL membership is inflated.

        • Trace

          You and Gordon are both right….and yet, culturally speaking…

  • AtheistAthena

    I agree, the Catholic Church is doing a pretty good job on its own to discredit itself. Even my staunch Catholic parents admit that they don’t agree with everything the church teaches, yet they go to church every week  because they are a part of the community and just believe what they choose to believe. They were ingrained with the sense of catholic guilt and obligation, self-sacrifice, blind-faith, etc, at an early age through intense Catholic education. I think the younger generations of catholics are getting away from that kind of complete brainwashing and have more doubts, but what one truly believes and what one will answer in response to even an anonymous survey is still probably going to differ, you know, just in case “someone up there” is watching. 

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Living in the South, I’ve seen Baptist ideas rub off on Catholics.  It’s not hard to find Catholics who don’t know that the Catholic Church accepts the evolution of humans from primates. 
    It also seems to me that Baptists are showing a lot more interest in realistic crucifixes, cherubs and putti than they did some decades ago.  I get a kick out of the way they portray Jesus in a medieval kingship role, while claiming that “true Christianity” was lost when Jesus died and rediscovered by Martin Luther.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland said in a talk a while ago that Irish Catholics were effectively Protestants and Irish Protestants were effectively Atheists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    Meh. Just tell me when the Pope is scheduled to visit the USA next. I have picket signs ready to go. 

  • Mairianna

    As a reformed Catholic, I can tell you that most Catholics pick and choose – probably MORE than the statistics show.   It’s comforting to know that you can only shove so much bullcrap down a person’s throat before they start vomiting it back up and out! 

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Did you mean you’re a  “reformed” or X-Catholic?

      • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

        The word “X-catholic” conjures up a scary image of catholics dressed in spandexes sporting an “X”, wielding super powers and fighting against equal rights.

        • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

          Isn’t the Roman collar scary enough for you?

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    It’s become a huge Episcopal Church.

    Jesus’ Resurrection was most important to 73%.
    (That’s the “hook in the mouth”.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/d3st88 Morva Ádám

      Yeah, but which version of Jesus’ resurrection? I mean.. even the bible has multiple contradicting versions.. Don’t these sheep read their own goddamn holy book?

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

        Yes, they do. But they are very adept rationalizers.

      • http://www.facebook.com/rlyndallwemm Rosemary Lyndall-Wemm

        Most read it piece-meal and not as whole books. Very few have read it front to back. Comparing stories (like the four resurrection accounts) is just not done unless you are a scholar – and 99.99 percent of Christians (or Muslims) are not scholars. Knowing the background to the Bible is reserved for theology and religious studies students. Just how many Christians have any idea that the resurrection story in the earliest of the gospels (Mark) was added decades after it was written. If the first gospel writer considered it so unimportant that it was not mentioned then it could not have been a central feature of early Christianity.

  • SJH

    I think that this data points to the larger problem that in many places religion is becoming less important. This is evidenced in our behavior. I know many atheists will say that they can be “good without God” and this is true to a certain extent but it is also true that many of our virtues and morals are pronounced by our religions in which we choose to collectively adhere to. Without these religions it seems to me that there would be less order and increased chaos. I wonder how successful we can be as a society without organized, collective adherence to values.

    Is the lack of morality in the corporate world tied to the lack of religion?
    Is the lack of personal responsibility in our society tied to our lack or religion?
    Is our decline of the family unit (ie. deadbeat dads) tied to our decline in religion?

    I would say that it is.

    Even if God does not exist it would only make sense to organize into a system which defines positive and negative behavior. The question then becomes who is wise enough to see the global reach of our actions and accurately predict the consequences of particular behaviors in all their complexity? Is that left up to all of us individually? If so, then we are doomed because the world and our societies are more complicated a system then any of us could engineer.

    • Anonymous

      You’re wrong. Less religion strongly correlates with a more civilized and peaceful society. Northern Europe has some of the least religious countries in the world (despite sometimes having state churches), but also boast some of the highest living and development standards, combined with low crime rates and well developed social services.

      The US is a clear outlier, combining high development with extreme religiosity. It also has a very high crime rate, a poor health care system, piss poor social services, a relatively poor public education system and extreme income inequality. That isn’t because of the prevalence of religion, but clearly religion doesn’t improve society by any measurable standard.

      None of what you say makes any sense. It’s just wishful thinking divorced from reality

      • SJH

        This is not my impression of European society at all.  How can you say Europe is successful with all the problems they are having in so many facets of life. I would like to see the statistics and sources that support your claim.
        The contrary seems to be true. There are so many cases throughout history, where atheism has taken center stage, where societies have lead to destruction. (ie. USSR, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nazi Germany, Cuba, etc…)

        • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

          What problems?

          Here are your statistics:
          Education: http://bit.ly/hrFPfh
          Quality of Living: http://bit.ly/dD2YqQ
          Crime: http://bit.ly/ddTJ3m

          Hope that helps.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Antonio-Pe-Yang-III/1361720319 Antonio Pe Yang III
        • Anonymous

          Yeah, trot out the HitlerStalinMao card again. You are like a broken record. Do you you even want to be taken seriously?

        • Rosemary

          Your ignorance is showing! 

          1.   The secular nations of Europe really are less crime ridden and more humane than countries that contain many god-believers. 

          Here is a link to one of the major research papers in this area, published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal.  It does NOT support your claims.  It strongly supports the notion that the more religious the community the more dysfunctional it is.
          http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.html

          2.  Hitler and Nazi Germany were Christian, not atheist.

          Nazi Germany was built upon the strong anti-semitism of the Catholic Church and Martin Luther.  Hitler was strongly anti-atheist, banned atheist groups and made religious education in schools compulsory in order to teach the appropriate moral values that he believed were necessary for the nation. 

          In a speech 26 June 1934, Hitler stated:

          “The National Socialist State professes its allegiance to
          positive Christianity. It will be its honest endeavour to protect both
          the great Christian Confessions in their rights, to secure them from
          interference with their doctrines , and in their duties to constitute a harmony with the views and the exigencies of the State of to-day.” 

          Hitler stated in a speech to the people of Stuttgart on February 15,
          1933: “Today they say that Christianity is in danger, that the Catholic
          faith is threatened. My reply to them is: for the time being, Christians
          and not international atheists are now standing at Germany’s fore. I am
          not merely talking about Christianity; I confess that I will never ally
          myself with the parties which aim to destroy Christianity. Fourteen
          years they have gone arm in arm with atheism. At no time was greater
          damage ever done to Christianity than in those years when the Christian
          parties ruled side by side with those who denied the very existence of
          God. Germany’s entire cultural life was shattered and contaminated in
          this period. It shall be our task to burn out these manifestations of
          degeneracy in literature, theater, schools, and the press—that is, in
          our entire culture—and to eliminate the poison which has been permeating
          every facet of our lives for these past fourteen years.”

          In a speech delivered in Berlin, October 24, 1933, Hitler stated: “We
          were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have
          therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that
          not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

          During negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of
          April 26, 1933
          Hitler argued that “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such
          schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without
          a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training
          and religion must be derived from faith.”

          3.  Authoritarian Communism is not synonymous with atheism. 

          With the exception of Nazi Germany, the “atheist” nations you list were authoritarian dictatorships with strong ideologies that were de facto religions.   There is a huge difference in kind between (usually communist) regimes that were not friendly to any faction, ideology or religion that challenged or usurped their absolute authority and the (usually socialist) states and nations that do not promote religion but do not ban it either.  The US is different because it runs as a virtual corpocracy that is funded and maintained by right wing fundamentalist Christian groups. That is, the national religion is an insidious form of Christian Capitalism that promotes “moral” values that ironically lead to the exactly the problems that they are supposed to prevent plus a few more, as well: major crime, abortion, unwed mothers, poor education, poverty, racial, gender and sexual discrimination, coercive religious practices and lack of respect for people who have different or no religious beliefs.

          “What is the difference between the slaughterhouses built by the Godless
          Communists of Russia and China and the civilised liberal polities built
          by the Godless progressives of Western Europe and elsewhere? The
          obvious answer is that Western European countries are liberal
          democracies committed to science and empiricism and reason, and freedom
          of speech and debate; whereas Soviet Russia and Red China clearly were
          not. It was not its atheism per se, but the illiberalism, the
          undemocratic nature, the dogmatism of Communism that made it the
          architect of so much 20th century horror.”

          http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6925&page=2

      • Moneybags

        Correlation does not provide causation. When it comes to religion people are (today) self-selecting. I’m more inclined to think that the attitudes come first, and the decision to be religious comes second.

    • Charles Black

      The only thing you’ve accomplished here is making yourself look like an ignorant fool. Please go back & educate yourself more before you embarrass yourself again.

    • Alantas

      Is the rise in global temperatures tied to the decline in the number of pirates over time?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Not surprising at all! These are the kinds of Catholics I’m familiar with, which is a big reason why I’m more comfortable with Catholics than evangelicals. Catholics are just so much more “normal,” despite the official crazy that comes out of the Vatican. They’re also more frustrating in some ways. All these nice, moderate, birth control-using, pro-choice, non-sexist, non-homophobic folks don’t believe what the church teaches, but they still give money to support the hierarchy and send their children to be indoctrinated at Catholic schools.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not just the lay people either.  When I was a Catholic (the cafeteria variety), I sought out the most liberal Catholic church I could find.  The priest stated during one homily that he knows the church dictates no sex before marriage, but the most important thing is really if you love the person. 

    Another time, there was a nun who had to give some sort of speech for some classes she was taking.  The priest got up before the homily, noted that women are not allowed to give the homily during Catholic mass, so Sister Mary was now going to give, not a homily, but a “talk”.  Everyone laughed and the church was not struck by lightening during the “talk”.

    The priest was reguarly suspended for such things, but he always ended back at the church before long.

    • Nurse Ingrid

      A nun at my high school was busted for saying the same thing your priest said about premarital sex. I remember she had to recant the next day. I was looking around my classroom, thinking, “Which one of you ratted her out to your parents?”

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    The methodology (internet-based Knowledge Networks survey) may have slightly higher uncertainties than phone-based poll; however, cross-checking the demographics via the 2010 GSS suggests they’re probably not too far off. 

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    It doesn’t surprise me that only 50% of Catholics know that transubstantiation is supposed to be real, not symbolic.  What does surprise me is that 17% of catholics don’t know that’s what they’re supposed to believe, but believe it anyway!  Arrgh, can’t they at least dissent from Catholic teachings in the right direction?

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    No mention of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession)
    In my Cathoholic childhood it was a BIG deal. Not today.

    And only 50% think weekly Mass is important.
    I was “taught” that if you were  late for the Consecration on Sunday,
    you had to attend another Mass or commit a MORTAL sin.
    Unconfessed mortal sins could lead to eternal Hellfire.

  • Pseudonym

    We’re living in a world full of Cultural Catholics — Cafeteria Catholics
    — who pick and choose what parts of the faith they can accept and which
    are expendable.

    Or it means that the Catholic Church isn’t defining the Catholic faith any more. No True Scotsman, and all that.

    It also means those of us who criticize the Church, point out the
    obvious lies, mock the silly beliefs, castigate the Church for its moral
    failings, and make the case for secular alternatives to the supposed
    “benefits” of religion are doing a wonderful job.

    Indeed, people who do this are doing a wonderful job. Moreover, it seems that most such people are inside the church, not outside it.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleglynn Nicole Glynn

    Not really surprised by this. Most Catholics I know are the in-name-only kind who believe in God and go to Catholic churches for weddings and funerals but have absolutely no other involvement in the church, not even going to regular mass.

  • Moneybags

    The role of the Church is one of teaching, not of control (although it doesn’t typically feel that way). Every human has a primary responsibility to do what they believe is right, regardless if they are Catholic.


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