Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Attitudes of Catholics highly committed to the church


Leaders of churches, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are especially interested in hearing the views of laity who are strongly committed. These lay persons are the solid core of parish life. They provide leadership, volunteer labor and financial support, all of which are sorely needed and much appreciated.

In addition, some voices in the Catholic community who advocate a stricter Catholicism, one with a higher level of lay commitment but with a smaller membership overall, are curious about what the configuration of laity would be like under those circumstances. In that vision, lukewarm or indifferent Catholics would be less welcome, and high-commitment Catholics would predominate. What can research tell us about who they are?

Catholic leaders are interested in high-commitment Catholics and want to know details about them -- not just about a random sample of lay persons. Therefore we identified them in the 2005 survey. We needed to decide: commitment to what? Many Catholics today make distinctions -- commitment to Gospel teachings, spirituality, devotions, moral behavior, and/or commitment to the institutional church. In this study, we chose to identify Catholics highly committed to the church.

To explore this issue, we divided the sample of Catholic lay persons into three levels of church commitment -- high, medium and low. Three questions in the interview were combined to form the identifying criterion. First, “How important is the Catholic church to you personally?” Second, “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend Mass?” The third asked the respondents to place themselves on a scale from one to seven, with one meaning that they would never leave the Catholic church, and seven that they might do so. To be considered a high-commitment Catholic, they had to say that the Catholic church is the most important part of their life or among the most important parts, that they attend Mass at least once a week, and that they would place themselves at one or two on the one-to-seven scale, indicating that they would not leave the Catholic church. Using this criterion, 21 percent of respondents scored high in 2005. Sixty-four percent scored medium and 15 percent scored low.

Many Catholics make no distinctions between faith and church, but as we saw in an earlier article, possibly as many as a majority do. We hear that especially young Catholics today distinguish between personal faith and adherence to the rules of the church, as is expressed in the catchall formula, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

This method of identifying high-commitment Catholics was used in all four of our surveys, beginning in 1987. The percent scoring high was 27 in 1987, 23 in 1993, 23 in 1999, and 21 in 2005. The overall level of church commitment has gradually sagged over 18 years. A key reason is that during this time, attendance weekly or oftener in our samples declined from 44 percent to 34 percent.

Who are they?

Catholics highly committed to the church are concentrated in certain demographic categories. The most important fact is that they are older. Of persons 64 or older, 42 percent scored as high-commitment; of persons 44 to 63, 19 percent; of persons 26 to 43, 18 percent; of persons 25 or younger, none. Nobody should conclude that in 20 or 40 years, no Catholics will be in the high-commitment category, since church involvement typically increases from the young adult years to the middle adult years. The most reasonable prediction is that in the future the overall level will continue to sag, as it has recently.

We also found three weaker patterns. High-commitment Catholics tended to be married or widowed more often than never married. High-commitment Catholics tended to have more Catholic education than others. And they tended (slightly) not to be living in the West. Other than these findings, we uncovered no patterns. For example, men and women were equally likely to have high commitment, as were members of different ethnic groups and persons of different educational levels.

Their beliefs and behaviors

Catholics highly committed to the church are clearly different on three topics but not different on three others. Let me review them one by one.

  • High-commitment Catholics are different in that they assign more moral authority to church leaders and less to the consciences of individuals than other Catholics. For example, on the question of who should have the final say about what is right or wrong regarding sexual relations outside of marriage, 39 percent of high-commitment Catholics said final authority is properly with church leaders, compared with 22 percent overall. (Other possible responses to the questions were “individuals taking church teaching into account and deciding for themselves” and “individuals and leaders working together.”)
  • High-commitment Catholics believe in stronger requirements on the question of what it takes to be a good Catholic. For example, on whether a person can be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday, 76 percent of the entire sample said yes they could, but only 49 percent of high-commitment Catholics said so.
  • High-commitment Catholics express fewer criticisms of the church or of church leadership. For example, on the statement, “Catholic parishes are too big and impersonal,” 39 percent of the total sample agreed, but only 26 percent of high-commitment persons. On the statement, “Catholic church leaders are out of touch with the laity,” 63 percent of the total sample agreed, compared with 41 percent of high-commitment persons. A selection of questions showing these differences is shown in Table 2.

We turn to areas in which high-commitment Catholics are not distinctive:

At a glance
  • High-commitment Catholics have the same attitudes as other laity regarding the rights of laity to participate in decision-making. For example, on the question of whether Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent, 89 percent of the total sample said yes, and the same number (89 percent) of high-commitment Catholics said so. On the question of whether laity should have the right to participate in decisions about parish closings, 80 percent of all Catholics said yes, as did 76 percent of high-commitment Catholics.
  • High-commitment Catholics agreed with others in their level of support for women altar servers, women Eucharistic ministers, and women parish administrators. But they were less in favor of women deacons or women priests. For example, on the question of women deacons, 81 percent of the total supported the idea, but only 68 percent of high-commitment Catholics (still a majority) were in favor.
  • High-commitment Catholics agreed with other laity about the acceptability of some future changes as a result of the priest shortage, but they did not agree on everything. They agreed on how acceptable it would be to bring in priests from other countries and how acceptable it would be not to have a priest available for giving last rites to the dying. However, they were not as accepting of having less than one Mass per week in their parish. Forty percent of the total sample would accept this, but only 27 percent of the high-commitment group. High-commitment laity disagreed with other laity on questions about possible futures of parishes. If parishes would need to be restructured, the high-commitment laity did not agree with the other laity on the acceptability of having a Communion service some of the time. (Sixty percent of the total sample said it would be acceptable, but only 44 percent of the high-commitment group said so.) They did not agree as often with the prospect of merging parishes. (Eighty-eight percent of the total sample could accept this, but 79 percent of high-commitment Catholics said this.) They were also not as accepting of having their parish closed.


Catholics with strong church commitment have stronger loyalty to church leaders, more obedience to church authority, and less criticism of the church leadership. They would be less tolerant of possible changes as a response to the priest shortage, such as reducing the Masses to less than once a week, not having a resident priest in the parish or having their parish closed.

Highly committed Catholics are no different from others in their attitudes about the rights of laity to participate in decision-making, at least regarding financial matters and probably in many other areas as well. They are no different in their acceptance of women in many roles (but not as deacons or priests).

To our research group, the most surprising finding was the rejection by high-commitment Catholics of some possibilities facing Catholics in the worsening shortage of priests. The most loyal Catholics will not be pleased by reduced availability of priests in the future. They are committed to the church as they know it.

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

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