Leading up to the September visit of Pope Francis to the United States, Pew Research Center conducted a telephone survey to gauge U.S. Catholics’ attitudes on family life, sexuality and Catholic identity. Between May 5 and June 7, 2015, Pew researchers interviewed 5,122 adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics, by telephone. Results of that survey were released in a report issued on Sept. 2.
During a meeting with Catholic newspaper editors Oct. 22, Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, spoke about some of the survey’s findings.
“We thought 2015 would be a perfect opportunity to do an in-depth survey of Catholics in the U.S.,” said Smith. “The survey shows Catholics in the U.S. are remarkably open to a variety of nontraditional family arrangements.”
While the survey indicated some disagreements with church teachings on family life and sexuality, it also showed that “church influence runs broad and deep (and) that Catholics are deeply loyal to the church,” said Smith.
The study also showed America’s strong connection to Catholicism, with 45 percent of Americans either Catholic or connected to Catholicism.
Most U.S. Catholics (nine out of 10) agree that a household headed by a married mother and father is ideal. It also showed that nearly half of U.S. Catholics (48 percent) believe unmarried parents are acceptable to run a household and 43 percent say a gay or lesbian couple is acceptable.
The survey found that one-fourth of U.S. Catholics have gone through a divorce and that six in 10 Catholics believe the church should allow divorced/remarried members to take Communion.
The entire survey is posted on the Pew Research website.
While some of the responses may raise eyebrows, the survey’s look at Catholic identity could hold potential for outreach to those who have some connection to the church.
“Catholic influence in the U.S. runs very deep,” said Smith. “Seven out of 10 Catholics say they could not imagine leaving the church, no matter what.”
It showed that nearly half of U.S. adults “have a close connection to Catholicism.” This includes 20 percent of Americans who identified themselves as Catholic; 9 percent who identified themselves as ex-Catholics (raised Catholic but don’t consider themselves Catholic in any way); 9 percent who are considered cultural Catholics (raised Catholic but now belonging to another faith or are religiously unaffiliated); and 8 percent who have “other connections,” such as family or institutional.
Cultural Catholics give Pope Francis a favorable rating and this could help bring them back into the church. “If there is potential for a Francis Effect, it’s probably among those who are cultural Catholics,” said Smith.
“We asked everyone who was raised Catholic, ‘Could you see yourself ever returning to Catholic Church?’” he said. Eight percent of ex-Catholics said yes and 43 percent of cultural Catholics said yes.
On a down note, the latest survey indicated that young adults do not identify strongly with religion. “Young people are far more likely to say ‘forget religion,’” said Smith. In fact, four in 10 Catholic adults under age 30 say they could see themselves leaving the church.
The Pew survey gives church ministers a lot of data to digest. Rather than pan or dismiss the findings, they should look for ways to use the survey to their advantage, especially in welcoming people back to active church membership.