Poll Shows American Catholics Go With Their Faith Over Their Religion

A new poll shows no major political differences between mainstream Catholics and non-Catholics.

By + More

By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A new Gallup poll is out that finds almost no difference between mainstream American Catholics and non-Catholics when it comes to deciding the moral acceptability of abortion (a majority of both say no) and embryonic stem cell research (a majority of both say yes).

When you look further into it, the poll shows that rank-and-file American Catholics—whether they go to church on a weekly basis or not—are not as conservative as regular churchgoers from other religions, which I assume means observant Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

According to the poll:

Regular churchgoers who are Catholic are significantly more liberal than churchgoing non-Catholics on gambling, sex before marriage, homosexual relations, having a baby out of wedlock, and divorce. Committed Catholics are at least slightly more likely than devout non-Catholics to say that abortion and embryonic stem-cell research ... are morally acceptable. Only on the death penalty are committed Catholics more conservative than regular churchgoers who are not Catholic.

I'm not surprised at all by these findings. I consider myself a mainstream American Catholic—I attended Catholic schools until college, but we don't send our kids to a Catholic school, although we do attend Mass as a family every week (well, nearly every week). We're parishioners at a Jesuit church known for its very activist commitment to social justice and service to others. In the old "faith vs. good works" argument, we like both. Apparently that makes us less conservative than other churchgoers. Why? I think I have an explanation.

A few years back, like most Catholic families, we had to make a decision when the pedophile scandal hit: were we going to stay or go? We all know people who left. Of those who stayed, there were two types: the hard-core crowd and the ones the hard-core crowd calls the "cafeteria Catholics"—folks who pick and choose which Church teachings to follow. Even though our parish was spared from the scandal, I think that was a donnybrook for many families: they'd stay, but it would be on their own terms. Like many others, I'm not quite willing to put our kids in Catholic schools and be altar servers, but I'll raise them in the broader Catholic tradition of service and faith as best I can. I thought that the pedophile scandal exposed how out of touch the Church leadership was with American families, and with women and children in particular. The conservative leadership of our Church lost some of its moral authority in the way it handled the whole thing.

I remember a homily at the time by one of our priests who is also the chaplain at a local college. He'd been approached by a young person who was living a lifestyle that was proscribed by church teaching. (He wouldn't say what it was, but we all could take a guess.) Anyway, the young man thought perhaps he shouldn't attend Mass anymore as a result of his choices. The priest told that young man something I've never forgotten: If you can look upon the face of Christ and explain what you've done, than you should remain in the Church. Basically, he was saying, this is between you and God. Don't let the Church get in the way. On a deeper level, don't confuse your faith with your religion. Faith is more important.

This poll shows that most American Catholics go with our faith first, our religion second. We have plenty of members of our parish who are homosexual, and we're glad to have them, despite what the Church's rules are about that. For the most part we are a pro-life community, but I don't know anyone who pickets an abortion clinic. We all know divorced Catholics—they're part of our community too—because sometimes there are excellent reasons to get divorced, despite what the Church says about that, too. I can't speak for all Catholic women, but as a mom, I feel that if women were allowed to play a bigger role in the leadership of the Church, there never would have been a pedophile scandal at all and the Church's conservative positions on many issues would be very different.

So it looks like the "cafeteria Catholics" are now the new mainstream of the American Catholic Church. I'm not surprised.

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.


Updated on 3/31/09: An earlier version of this blog post had a different headline. It has been updated.