Data Day

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s already a big Catholic news week. Pew Research released a new poll setting the table for the pope’s spin through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia later this month. Francis announced that for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which will begin in December, he will allow all priests to absolve those who confess procuring abortions—and that priests of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X can hear confessions too. And today word came that Francis met with a liberal French bishop who had been exiled by John Paul II. Let’s start with the sexiest item: data (I’ll get to the other stuff later).

You’ve probably already seen the headlines: “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families” (at least that’s how Pew itself titled the report). Shock. Awe. Fainting couch. But look deeper into the study, and several interesting findings emerge. First, in addition to the fact that most American Catholics don’t agree with Catholic teaching on a range of issues, Pew Research asked a series of questions that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever asked before: How connected to Catholicism are you? Turns out that 45 percent of all Americans either identify as Catholic or are connected to Catholicism—20 percent say they’re Catholic. Is the 20 percent figure news? Not really. But first, let’s have a look at those values findings.

The U.S. Catholic population generally is just fine with a range of non-traditional family arrangements. Nine in ten rate households headed by a mother and father as more or less ideal. But those headed by parents who are gay, unmarried, divorced, or single, are accepted (and judged not as good as some others) by large majorities of self-identified Catholics. For example, 83 percent of American Catholics say that unmarried parents living together is “acceptable but not as good as some others” (35 percent) or “as good as any other” (48 percent). When it comes to gay or lesbian parents, 43 percent say that is as good a household arrangement as any, and 23 percent say it’s acceptable. Likewise, the vast majority of Catholics at least accept straight couples and gay couples who cohabitate.

Of course, weekly Mass-goers tend to favor more traditional arrangements. (About 40 percent of Catholics say they attend Mass at least every week.) According to 26 percent of such Catholics, children being raised by divorced parents is as good as any other arrangement (compared to 34 percent of Catholics who go to Mass less often). Yet 56 percent of weekly Mass-goers say such situations are “acceptable, but not as good as some others.” What about children being raised by same-sex couples? Thirty-four percent of weekly Mass-goers say it’s as good as any other arrangement and another quarter say it’s acceptable, but not as good as others. Similarly, kids being raised by cohabitating couples is considered as good as anything else by 38 percent of weekly Mass-goers, with an additional 41 percent saying it’s OK, but not as good as some other arrangements. Yet weeklies are divided over whether it’s a sin: 46 percent say yes, 45 say no (don’t think too hard about the 6 percent who answered this question by saying they don’t believe in sin).

You see similar breakdowns on questions about the sinfulness of “homosexual behavior” (not when gay couples go to the movies), remarriage sans annulment, cohabitation, and contraception. You probably won’t be surprised by those findings (76 percent of all Catholics say the church should allow couples to use birth control, 54 percent think cohabitation is not a sin). What caught my eye was that Catholics were evenly divided on the question of whether the church should “recognize” same-sex marriage: 46 percent said yes, the same amount said no. Not quite half of weekly Mass-goers (46 percent) say it’s sinful to cohabitate or to remarry without an annulment. And just a little over half (54 percent) agreed that the church should not recognize gay marriages, leaving 46 percent who are apparently all right with it. Likewise, not even half of weekly Mass-goers say that the church should not let cohabiting or divorced and remarried couples receive Communion (48 percent, and 42 percent, respectively).

No surprise, then, that large majorities of Catholics support changes in church teaching on contraception (76 percent), the celibate priesthood (62 percent), the all-male priesthood (59 percent), and Communion for the divorced and remarried (62 percent). As you might imagine, weekly Mass-goers don’t support such changes as much as those who attend less often, yet there is still significant support for changing the teaching against birth control (65 percent) and Communion for the divorced and remarried (half). As for other issues—celibate priests, male priests—nearly half of frequent Mass-goers favor change. Even 37 percent of them want to see the church recognize gay marriage. And large number of both frequent and infrequent Mass-goers expect to see those teachings change—by 2050.

(Caveat lector: It’s true that there are significant differences between the views of weekly Mass-goers and less frequent Mass-goers. But when weekly and “monthly/yearly” Mass-goers said certain household situations were “acceptable, but not as good as some other arrangements,” there are some intriguing similarities. For example: on the question of divorced parents raising kids, 56 percent of weekly Mass-goers said that was acceptable but not as good as some other situations, as compared to 52 percent of monthly/yearly Mass-goers. Those two groups also lined up on the question of gay parents raising children: 25 percent of weeklies said it was acceptable but not the best; while 22 of monthlies/yearlies agreed.)

This doesn’t mean Catholics don’t believe in sin anymore. Ninety percent of them say yes, some actions offend God. That figure more or less holds across all subgroups (men, women, white, Latino, younger, older, well educated, less well educated, married, single, Democrat, Republican, frequent Mass-goer, Mass-skipper). What counts as a sin? Abortion, number one with 59 percent of Catholics calling it a sin. Just 44 percent of Catholics said “homosexual behavior” (not going for a bike ride) is sinful. Seventeen percent said practicing birth control was sinful. Surprisingly, 12 percent of all Catholics (and 27 percent of Latino Catholics) said drinking alcohol was a sin! I need a drink.

Let’s talk annulments, since the world’s bishops will take up the issue next month at the Synod on the Family. One-quarter of divorced Catholics have tried to get an annulment. (Oddly, 1 percent of respondents said they didn’t know whether they had sought one. So, there’s that.) Why don’t the other three-quarters give annulment a shot? Twenty-eight percent say they don’t think it is necessary. Another 10 percent say the process it too pricey. Five percent were sure their petition wouldn’t be granted.

If American Catholics have softened on so-called non-traditional household situations, perhaps it’s because they’re becoming more acquainted with them. For example, Pew Research found that fully one-quarter of U.S. Catholic adults have gone through a divorce—nearly 10 percent of whom are now remarried. One-quarter of divorced Catholics say their former spouse has sought an annulment. Forty-four percent of Catholics have lived with a partner (9 percent are doing so now).

Pew found little Catholic support for the key theme of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato sí. Most Catholics aren’t that into working to protect environment. Fewer than half of Catholics say buying luxuries without giving to the poor and using energy without thinking about its environmental effects are sins. What’s interesting here is that Latinos show more concern for “sins of excess”—32 percent of them, as compared to 18 percent of whites, say energy consumption without regard for the environment is sinful. But the survey was conducted before the text was published.

Again, not exactly earth-shattering news. But for this survey Pew Research asked something new: How are you connected to Catholicism? What they found was that 45 percent of all Americans have some connection to Catholicism. Twenty percent said they were Catholic. Another 9 percent of all respondents said that while they belong to another religion or none, they still consider themselves Catholic in some other way. How so? Some were raised Catholic and still consider themselves “indelibly” Catholic because of heritage. These kinds of Catholics are quite high on Pope Francis, not so much on Mass attendance (although some of them do go to Mass every so often). Another 9 percent are ex-Catholics—they were raised in the faith, but now say they’re not Catholic in any way. Yet nearly 60 percent of ex-Catholics look favorably on the pope. And a few go to Mass a couple times a year. And another 8 percent of Americans were neither raised Catholic nor consider themselves Catholic at all, but still say they’re connected to the church, whether through family or institution. That’s a lot of Catholic-connecteds. Boffo papal-visit ratings for sure.

Catholic connections among Latinos are even stronger. Forty-five percent of Latino respondents said they were Catholic. Thirteen percent are culturally Catholic (11 percent of them were raised Catholic or had a Catholic parent). About 20 percent of Latinos in the United States are ex-Catholics. Another 8 percent are connected in some other way (Catholic spouse, Mass-goer, etc.). All told, about 80 percent of Latinos here have a direct connection to the church. A mere 16 percent of them have no Catholic connection at all.

If there’s a “Francis Effect,” people—and by people, I mean journalists—look for it in the pews, among other places. Is anyone coming back to the church? About half of those raised Catholic leave—not always permanently. Pew found that just 8 percent of ex-Catholics can see themselves coming back to the fold. But 43 percent of cultural Catholics might consider a return. What about self-identified Catholics? Would they ever switch places with the exes? Not likely. About 70 percent say they wouldn’t even consider leaving the church. (Seventy-seven percent of those who have left say they won’t go back.) Yet that number doesn’t hold across all age cohorts. The younger you are, the more likely you are to consider leaving the church. About four in ten Catholics under thirty say they could see themselves vacating—only one-quarter of those aged thirty to sixty-four agree. Only 14 percent of Catholics over sixty-four said they would think about leaving. Naturally, the same goes for those who say they’re Catholic. Just 15 percent of American Millennials called themselves Catholic, as compared to 20 percent of Gen-Xers, 21 percent of Boomers, and nearly a quarter of the Silent Generation (born 1928-45).

But, as I mentioned, this data was collected between May and June. Francis is coming. Naturally there is no shortage of commentary about What It All Means. Some have made quite a bit of the July Gallup poll showing weakening support for Francis in the United States—especially among conservatives. In his cover story for the latest National Review (don’t miss the tasteful cover), Ramesh Ponnuru explains that Francis’s popularity in the United States is dropping. “In 2014, 76 percent of Americans viewed him favorably,” he writes. But now just 45 percent of conservatives think of him positively, as compared with 68 percent of liberals. Over at the New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig notes conservative and liberal “disappointments” with the pope. But mainly she’s talking about the chattering classes. Is there a significant “backlash” against Francis in the United States? In a word, probably not.

Over to you, Pew:

Francis Widely Popular Among Catholics

So, across all cohorts, there is significant support for Pope Francis. If you don’t attend Mass that regularly, you like the pope. If you attend quite regularly, you really like the pope. Democrats like him. Republicans like him. Independents too (Bernie Sanders tweets papal quotes all the time). Conservatives, moderates, liberals—all pro-pope. Older, younger, in between. White, Latino, man, woman. Child? Well, the youngest cohort, aged eighteen to twenty-nine, showed the lowest net favorability: 75 percent. Not too shabby. Now, Pew collected its data between May 5 and June 7, before Francis’s encyclical was released (June 18), and before Francis delivered his July 9 mini-encyclical on the dangers of free-market capitalism and Rush Limbaugh went to DEFCON 1. Gallup conducted its survey between July 8 and 11. Enough time for U.S. Catholics to sour on the pope? Perhaps, but is perhaps enough to build a papal-backlash story on? All signs point to doubtful.

But who knows? Data gonna data, as the youngest cohort says. By the autumn we could see Francis beating Trump for the GOP nomination. Yuuuge. But in the meantime, give the Pew study a read. It’s not a perfect survey (none is), but it might be good for you. Or at least keep you from going too big too soon on the Francis-flameout meme.

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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