Survey: U.S. Catholics on politics, abortion, L.G.B.T. issues and racial justice

In August, America reported the results of a national survey of U.S. Catholics on their attitudes about the church three years after the release of the devastating Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse of young people by members of the Catholic clergy. The survey, sponsored by America and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, also asked about other timely topics including the election of a Catholic president (with no consensus on whether this is a “positive thing”), the ordination of women, abortion and other life issues, financial donations to the church, racial justice and Catholic identity. The second part of the results of our survey reveal that many divisions within the church also run along political lines. On other issues, especially those involving L.G.B.T. Catholics, there were significant differences among age groups.

A Catholic President and Communion

CARA tracks the presidential vote of Catholics in the United States by aggregating the major surveys measuring the electorate released on the day after each election and shortly thereafter. The Catholic electorate has been nearly evenly divided in half of the last six elections, but the 2020 election may have marked the return of at least a tiny Democratic majority among Catholic voters—though Joseph R. Biden Jr., the second Catholic to be elected president, does not seem to have done quite as well among Catholic voters as Barack Obama, another Democrat and not a Catholic, did in 2008 and 2012.

A Catholic president
The Catholic president

The major national surveys measuring the election outcome are not in agreement for 2020. In the American National Election Study, President Joe Biden is estimated to have won 55 percent of the Catholic vote and former President Donald Trump 43 percent of the Catholic vote. In the exit poll conducted by Edison Research and shared by major media outlets, Mr. Biden is estimated to have won 52 percent of the Catholic vote compared with Mr. Trump’s 47 percent (the same poll found that Mr. Trump won 56 percent of the white, non-Hispanic Catholic vote). Finally, a new AP-NORC poll estimated that Mr. Biden won 49 percent of the vote compared with 50 percent for Mr. Trump.

According to our own poll, conducted in the wake of the 2020 election, 42 percent of Catholics self-identified as Democrats and another 7 percent as independents who are “closer” to the Democratic Party. Twenty-six percent identified as Republicans and another 7 percent as independents who are closer to the Republican Party. Fifteen percent were independents who did not lean toward either major party, and 3 percent identified with some other political party.

Forty-two percent of adult Catholics said it is a “positive thing” that the United States currently has a Catholic president. But a majority, 52 percent, called this a “neutral thing,” and 6 percent said it was a “negative thing.”

Forty-two percent of adult Catholics said it is a “positive thing” that the United States currently has a Catholic president. But a majority, 52 percent, called this a “neutral thing,” and 6 percent said it was a “negative thing.” There was a significant partisan split on this question, with 57 percent of Democrats but only 29 percent of Republicans saying it was “positive.”

Twenty-seven percent of adult Catholics said they would be “very supportive,” and an additional 18 percent “somewhat supportive,” of the U.S. bishops’ issuing a statement that Catholic politicians and public officials who support legal abortion should not present themselves for Communion; 24 percent did not support that idea, and 31 percent were undecided. Among those most likely to be “very supportive” of the Communion prohibition were men (35 percent); weekly Mass attenders (43 percent); pre-Vatican II Catholics, who were born before 1943 (43 percent); and Catholic Republicans (46 percent).

Women's ordination
U.S. Catholics on women’s ordination

The Ordination of Women

Our survey revealed strong support among U.S. Catholics for women’s ordination, either as priests or as permanent deacons. Fifty-six percent supported allowing women ages 35 and older to be ordained as permanent deacons, and nearly the same share—52 percent—supported allowing women to be ordained as priests.

Twenty-five percent of the respondents said “maybe” to the idea of allowing women to be ordained as permanent deacons but said that they want to learn more before answering further. Nine percent said “no,” and 10 percent “I don’t know.” Twenty-two percent said “maybe” to the idea of allowing women to be ordained as priests but said that they want to learn more before answering further. Sixteen percent said “no” to the idea and 10 percent “I don’t know.”

Fifty-six percent supported allowing women ages 35 and older to be ordained as permanent deacons, and nearly the same share—52 percent—supported allowing women to be ordained as priests.

Men were just as likely as women to support allowing women to be ordained as deacons or as priests. A minority of weekly Mass attenders supported allowing women to be ordained as deacons (46 percent) or as priests (38 percent). Majorities of monthly attenders (58 percent and 54 percent) and those attending Mass a few times a year or less often (59 percent and 60 percent) supported ordaining women as deacons or as priests.

Abortion and Life Issues

Forty-nine percent of adult Catholics said they are either “very” or “somewhat” opposed to abortion. As mentioned above, 45 percent were at least “somewhat supportive” of the idea that Catholic politicians and public officials who support legal abortion should not present themselves for Communion.

Thirty-eight percent were “very” or “somewhat” opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide, and 32 percent were similarly opposed to the death penalty. Nineteen percent were “very” or “somewhat” opposed to embryonic stem cell research, and 20 percent said the same of in vitro fertilization.

Thirty-eight percent were “very” or “somewhat” opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide, and 32 percent were similarly opposed to the death penalty.

Republican Catholics were more likely than Democratic Catholics to oppose abortion (65 percent compared with 41 percent), assisted suicide (45 percent compared with 34 percent) and embryonic stem cell research (26 percent compared with 19 percent) but less likely to oppose the death penalty (28 percent compared with 36 percent). Both groups were equally likely to oppose in vitro fertilization (22 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Republicans). Majorities of Catholics affiliating with either party were supportive of in vitro fertilization, but that was true with none of the other issues listed.

Social issues
Catholics on U.S. social issues

Same-Sex Blessings

Sixty-two percent of adult Catholics said they believe priests should be allowed to bless same-sex couples. Weekly Mass attenders were among the most likely to oppose the blessing of same-sex couples (51 percent said “no”), while those attending a few times a year or less often were the most likely to be supportive (69 percent said “yes”). Pre-Vatican II Catholics opposed such blessings (56 percent “no”), but other age groups were supportive: 58 percent said yes among Vatican II Catholics, born between 1943 and 1960; among post-Vatican II Catholics, born between 1961 and 1981, approval was 64 percent; and among millennial Catholics, born in 1982 or later, 67 percent approved. Democratic Catholics supported same-sex blessings (73 percent “yes”) but Republicans opposed them (57 percent “no”).

Twenty-nine percent of adult Catholics rated the church’s outreach to L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families as “good” or “very good.” Forty-one percent rated this outreach as “fair.” Three in 10 considered it “poor” or “very poor.” A quarter of adult Catholics said they have considered leaving the Catholic Church because of its teaching on L.G.B.T. Catholics, a statistic consistent across all frequencies of Mass attendance. But there are differences by generation. Thirty-five percent of millennial Catholics said they have considered leaving because of these teachings, compared with 26 percent of the post-Vatican II generation, 16 percent of the Vatican II generation and 6 percent of the pre-Vatican II generation. Thirty-percent of Democrats have considered leaving because of the church’s teaching on L.G.B.T. Catholics, compared with 21 percent of Republicans.

Church Giving

Forty-nine percent of respondents said they or someone in their household contributed to the collection at their local parish in 2020. Four in ten gave $250 or less over the year—$250 would equate to $4.81 per week.

Church giving
Trust in finance

Past CARA research indicated that Catholics gave $10 per week, on average, in 2010. Another four in 10 in our new survey gave $251 to $1,000 in 2020—$1,000 would equate to $19.23 per week. One in five gave $1,001 or more per year to their parish in 2020.

A little more than a quarter gave to their diocesan financial appeal in 2020. A higher share, 33 percent, gave to their diocesan financial appeal in 2019, before the pandemic. Respondents were asked about the most recent time they contributed to their diocesan appeal and whether they changed the amount they usually give. Eleven percent indicated their most recent contribution was an increased amount, 24 percent said it had decreased, and 64 percent said their contribution stayed the same.

A quarter of adult Catholics said they have considered leaving the Catholic Church because of its teaching on L.G.B.T. Catholics.

Among those who reported a change in giving to their diocesan appeal, 46 percent said this change was a result of a change in their household’s income or ability to give. A quarter said the change was related to their reaction to the sexual abuse scandal, and 22 percent cited their feelings for the state of the national economy. Ten percent said the change was a result of financial loss related to the pandemic. Eight percent cited another reason.

Sixty-six percent of respondents said they have at least “some confidence” that the pastor of their local parish is properly handling church finances. Sixty-one percent said they have this same level of confidence in their bishop’s or cardinal’s handling of church finances.

Racial Justice

Sixty-two percent of adult Catholics agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that the Catholic Church should do more to advocate for racial justice in the United States. But 57 percent said that the church has been an advocate for racial justice in the country. Forty-four percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that the Catholic Church and the Black Lives Matter movement have “a great deal of overlapping concerns.”

While Democrats and Republicans were in agreement that the church has been an advocate for racial justice in the United States (60 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans at least “somewhat” agreeing), they disagreed on whether the church should do more to advocate for racial justice (79 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans at least “somewhat” agreeing) and whether the church and the Black Lives Matter movement have a great deal of overlapping concerns (58 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of Republicans at least “somewhat” agreeing).

What It Means to Be Catholic

When asked what factors are most important to their sense of being Catholic, 90 percent of respondents said helping the poor was “somewhat” or “very” important. Eighty-four percent similarly cited receiving Communion. Eighty-one percent said living a life consistent with church teaching is at least “somewhat” important to their sense of what it means to be Catholic. Sixty-two percent responded similarly about attending Mass weekly, and 59 percent said the same about being involved with their parish.

This survey was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. CARA surveyed 1,050 self-identified Catholics from May 21 to June 4, 2021. The survey was taken online and was available in English and Spanish (861 respondents took the survey in English and 189 in Spanish). The sample was provided by the management and market research firm Qualtrics from actively managed, double-opt-in survey research panels.