American Catholics Divided on Family Issues

Poll: Traditional, Liberal Catholics Sharply Divided on Faith and Family Issues

A new RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY national survey has found deep divisions among American Catholics on issues of faith and family.

At a recent press conference in Washington, DC, W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a resident fellow at the Institute for American Values, called the RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY survey on Faith and Family in America “one of the first polls that actually break out Catholics along traditional and liberal lines, asking the respondents to say, ‘Are you a liberal Catholic or a traditional Catholic or just a Catholic basically?’”

“We are able to see for the first time that the divisions we’ve seen at the elite level on a lot of hot-button social issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage, are also being mirrored to some extent in the pews,” said Wilcox.

Among the survey findings:

Seventy-one percent of Americans overall believe “God’s plan for marriage is one man, one woman, for life.” Among Catholics, 91 percent of traditional Catholics say they agree with the statement, but only 60 percent of liberal Catholics say they agree.

Seventy-two percent of liberal Catholics think cohabitation is all right, compared to only 38 percent of traditional Catholics. (Fifty-seven percent of mainline Protestants said it was all right, as did 21 percent of evangelicals.)

Fifty-one percent of traditional Catholics and 39 percent of liberal Catholics agree that married people are generally happier than unmarried people.

Eighteen percent of liberal Catholics think divorce is a sin, compared to 30 percent of traditional Catholics.

Only 35 percent of liberal Catholics believe the law should define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Seventy percent of traditional Catholics support that. Thirty-nine percent of liberal Catholics and 15 percent of traditional Catholics said the law should define marriage as a union between two people regardless of their gender.

Forty-five percent of liberal Catholics “strongly favor” gay adoption, and 24 percent “somewhat favor” it; 11 percent of traditional Catholics “strongly favor” gay adoption and 23 percent “somewhat favor” it.

Seventy-seven percent of liberal Catholics and 41 percent of traditional Catholics agree that “love is what makes a family and it doesn’t matter if parents are gay or straight, married or single.”

Forty-seven percent of liberal Catholics say when it comes to sex education, “Abstinence from sexual intercourse is not the most important thing. Sex-ed classes should focus on teaching teens how to make responsible decisions about sex.” Only 33 percent of traditional Catholics agree.

Thirty-four percent of traditional Catholics and 20 percent of liberal Catholics say they worry a lot about their children maintaining the religious tradition they were brought up in.

Thirty-eight percent of traditional Catholics and 40 percent of liberal Catholics say “moral values” means “personal values such as honesty and responsibility.” Only 8 percent of traditional Catholics and 3 percent of liberal Catholics say “moral values” means “social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.”

“It is very interesting that there is such diversity within the American Catholic community,” Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, told RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY. “There’s real diversity in a Church that looks like it ought to be very unified because it has a unified, official hierarchy that pronounces a certain set of doctrines about how a family ought to live.”

The nationwide survey, of 1,130 adults was conducted July 25 through August 7, 2005 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3. Twenty-one percent of the total number of respondents identified themselves as Roman Catholic. Of those, 30 percent said they were traditional Catholics, 47 percent said they were liberal Catholics, and 20 percent said they were neither.

The survey was conducted for RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. Learn more about the survey, view or download the data, and read extended analysis of the results.