Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

American Catholics from John Paul II to Benedict XVI


Our research teams have carried out four surveys of American Catholics. The first survey in the spring of 1987 was carried out in anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s second visit to the United States. Our fourth survey was carried out following his death just after this past Easter and coincident with the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy as Benedict XVI. The four surveys were carried out by the Gallup Organization in six-year intervals, always in the weeks immediately following Easter. This 18-year time period has enabled us to track trends of change as well as areas of relative stability in the beliefs, practices and attitudes of American Catholics.

One of the major concerns we had as we awaited the results of this survey was the impact of the sexual abuse scandal first exposed in 2002, a scandal that continues to occupy church officials and laity alike around the country. We wondered how this scandal might affect the attitudes and commitments of Catholics. Several of the essays to follow will make clear that this scandal has had little measurable impact. The patterns of beliefs and commitments we reported in our story in NCR in October 1999 have been quite stable.

The opening essay reports our findings on Catholic identity, providing new insights into what it means to be Catholic. Both stability and change are evident in Dean Hoge’s analysis of the findings.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had tried to open a national dialogue on what he called “a consistent ethic of life.” He believed that Catholic teachings were sufficiently well-grounded to be able to address life issues from conception to death. While his goal of a serious national dialogue was never achieved, elements have received varying degrees of support by the American bishops and by both parties in the Congress. James Davidson examines the way the Catholic laity responds to abortion and the death penalty. Catholics have been at the center of these debates. Davidson finds that both the frequency of abortions and the exercise of the death penalty have declined in recent years. Religiously active Catholics are more pro-life on both issues, but there is only a loose connection between Catholics’ attitudes about abortion and their attitudes about the death penalty.

This is the first time that we have included political preference in our survey questions. We have used this new variable in our collection to explore how persons identifying themselves politically respond to a range of questions related to Bernardin’s concerns, from abortion to such issues as providing more government funds for health care for poor children, cutting the budget for welfare programs, increasing funding for the military and for nuclear arms, and whether the government should stiffen the laws for the death penalty. Catholic Democrats and Republicans split along the fault lines seen in the 2004 elections. But Catholics are united in their support for the basic creedal beliefs, and also in their Mass attendance habits.

Mary Gautier examines the question of whether Catholic education makes a difference, and concludes that it pays off in ways beneficial to both the country and the church. Gautier also examines two other issues we have been tracking: Catholic commitment to parish life and Catholic laity’s insistence on playing a role in important decisions about running the parish. In the essay on parish life, she reports strong correlations between being registered in a parish, Mass attendance, marriage and a host of other variables, and concludes that despite the gradual decline in weekly Mass attendance, for a large majority of American Catholics their connection to parish life remains strong. In her essay on the laity’s desire to participate in how parish finances are handled, Gautier shows the growing support, now at 90 percent, for the laity’s right to participate in deciding parish spending priorities. At the same time the laity respects the role of the pastor.

Davidson addresses a question that is on the minds of many bishops and lay leaders: To what extent does the laity still see the church as an essential component of our relationship with God? He finds that a majority of Catholics still see the church as a mediator (especially through the sacraments), but there are important generational differences on this issue. These differences suggest that, as bishops and lay leaders suspect, younger Catholics have a more individualistic view of their relationship with God.

In his final essay Davidson tackles the topic of religious illiteracy and its consequences. He uses results from other research and our 2005 survey to see if religious illiteracy is any more widespread among young Catholics and if it is linked to dissent in the church. Although our data are somewhat limited on these issues, they suggest that young Catholics have no more difficulty explaining their faith than other Catholics do and that the inability to explain one’s faith has little or nothing to do with dissent from church teachings.

One of the most predictive variables over the course of our four surveys has been that of generations. We have found it useful to think of American Catholics as constituting three distinctive generations: First are those Catholics born before 1940 who came of age in the church as we knew it before Vatican II -- whom we have labeled pre-Vatican II Catholics. Those born between 1941 and 1960 are Vatican II Catholics, the older ones having some experience of the old church, and all of them experiencing the impact of Vatican II. Those born after 1960 we have called the post-Vatican II Catholics. They are now rapidly becoming a majority of all Catholic adults. In our surveys, we have selected a number of key issues and subjected them to an examination across the four time periods. After much discussion among ourselves, we decided to subdivide the youngest Catholics into two cohorts. Thus, the generation previously identified as post-Vatican II Catholics we identify in this survey as “Gen X” Catholics, that is, those born between 1961 and 1978. We perceive a new generation coming of age, and we identify them here as the “Millennials.” They are the smallest cohort, but when combined with the “Gen X” cohort, they now constitute almost half of all Catholic adults ages 18 and over. Because of a small sample of Millennials, we urge the reader to read with caution our findings concerning them. By the year 2011, when we will launch the next survey, we will know if our findings this year are an aberration or a sign of things to come.

The other variable that has been predictive of differences in beliefs, attitudes and behavior is the commitment factor. Hoge examines the continuing importance of commitment in predicting Catholic lay behavior and beliefs. He also notes the slow but apparently steady decline in the percentage of highly committed Catholics, and projects the implications for the future.

We had hoped to be able to explore the directions that the growing Hispanic population might be taking. To do so, we requested an oversample of Hispanics, as we had done in 1999. But the results pretty much mirror those from the 1999 survey in terms of their behavior, beliefs and practices as American Catholics. Increasingly they resemble other Catholics. Most national studies report that Hispanics now constitute approximately 25 percent to 29 percent of all American Catholics.

Since we have trend data on lay attitudes toward the priest shortage and toward possible parish restructuring, we have included two trend tables (Tables 11 and 12). They show gradual increases in acceptance of possible innovations, such as parishes without resident priests or with married priests.

This year’s survey had a sample size of 875 and a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

The 2005 survey was funded by a grant from the Louisville Institute that was matched by a grant from an anonymous donor. Additional funds were provided by the National Catholic Reporter. The Louisville Institute provided the major funding for the 1999 survey, again with additional funds from the National Catholic Reporter. NCR funded the first two surveys, with additional funds for the first survey provided by Fr. Andrew Greeley. The team of researchers and coauthors are grateful to the organizations that have made these surveys possible.

When I accepted the invitation of Tom Fox (then editor) and Bill McSweeney (then publisher) of NCR, I did so with the understanding that I would form a team of researchers to work with me. I had no idea we would be in this project for the long haul. Hoge saw the possibilities from the beginning, and it was his encouragement and support that have enabled us to move ahead. Davidson has been part of our team from the beginning, calling special attention to generational differences in Catholics’ beliefs and practices. His new book Catholicism in Motion examines changes in the church’s role in American society and organizational issues facing the church. Ruth Wallace, now professor emerita of George Washington University, was a team member for the first two surveys, before turning her full attention to her studies of priestless parishes run by lay women and men. Katherine Meyer of Ohio State graciously agreed to be part of the team for the third survey. Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has now joined the team. She brings with her a rich array of research findings from her work as a member of the CARA team.

My own other research at this time focuses on Voice of the Faithful, a two-year study of its founders and leaders, including a national survey of its members. My collaborator in this study is Sulpician Fr. Anthony J. Pogorelc. A symposium on our research will take place at Boston College Oct. 23.

We are indebted to NCR, its editor Tom Roberts and its publisher Sr. Rita Larivee for their willingness to provide space that enables us to continue to tell the story of American Catholics.

NCR layout editor Toni-Ann Ortiz designed and laid out the tables, figures and charts for this package.

At a glance

William V. D’Antonio earned a doctorate from Michigan State University and has held faculty positions at Michigan State, 1957-59; Notre Dame, 1959-71 (professor and chair 1966-71); University of Connecticut, 1971-82 (professor and chair 1971-76). He was American Sociological Association Executive Officer, 1982-91, and has served as Visiting Research Professor at The Catholic University of America, 1993-present. He is co-author of eight books and coeditor of four books. With Sulpician Fr. Anthony Pogorelc, he is completing a two-year study of Voice of the Faithful.

Dean Hoge earned a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University, 1970. Since 1974 he has been on the faculty of the Department of Sociology at The Catholic University in of America. His research has been mainly on American churches, clergy and youth. His recent books include Young Adult Catholics (coauthored, 2001), The First Five Years of the Priesthood (2002), Evolving Visions of the Priesthood (coauthored, 2003), and Pastors in Transition (coauthored, 2005). At the present time, he is researching international priests serving in the United States.

James Davidson earned a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and is professor of sociology at Purdue University. In addition to his work on this research team, he has written Catholicism in Motion (2005), Lay Ministers and Their Spiritual Practices (2003), and The Search for Common Ground (1997). He writes a biweekly column for diocesan newspapers. He is president-elect of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Mary Gautier is a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, where she specializes in Catholic demographic trends in the United States, manages CARA databases on church information, and conducts demographic projects and computer-aided mapping. She also edits The CARA Report, a quarterly research publication. She is coauthor of two books on Catholicism published by Orbis Books.

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: