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

What Catholics believe about abortion and the death penalty


Our 2005 survey shows that there continues to be a sizable gap between official church teachings about abortion and the death penalty and the way American Catholics view these life issues. In the case of abortion, the gap appears to be widening, while in the case of the death penalty, it seems to be narrowing. We also find little or no evidence of a consistent life ethic in Catholics’ views about these life and death issues (see Table 6).

First, let me describe the context in which Catholics are formulating their views on these issues. I do this by reviewing abortion and death penalty trends since the 1970s, examining Americans’ attitudes on the issues, and summarizing official church teachings. Then, I will turn to Catholics’ attitudes.

U.S. trends

Between 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, and 2000, about 39 million abortions were performed in the U.S. (on average, 1.4 million per year). The number of abortions rose steadily from 745,000 in 1973 to about 1.6 million per year during the 1980s. Since reaching its peak at 1,609,000 in 1990, the number has declined to 1,313,000 in 2000. There were 16.3 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 in 1973. That figure increased to 29.3 in both 1980 and 1981. Since then, it has declined to 21.3 in 2000.

The number of death penalty cases in the United States peaked in 1930s, when about 176 Americans were put to death each year. That number dropped steadily to 72 in the 1950s. There were only seven executions in 1965, one in 1966, and two in 1967, when executions were suspended while the courts considered their constitutionality. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that existing death penalty laws were unconstitutional. States responded by revising their laws to satisfy the Court. In 1976, the Supreme Court reviewed these changes and reinstated the death penalty.

The first execution after the moratorium occurred in 1977, when Gary Gilmore was put to death in Utah. There were no executions in 1978, and only two in 1979. The number increased steadily to a high of 98 in 1999. Since then, the trend line has been downward, from 85 in 2000, to 66 in 2001, 71 in 2002, 65 in 2003, and 59 in 2004.

Americans’ attitudes

Americans’ attitudes about abortion have been quite stable since the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, 54-55 percent of Americans believed abortion “should be legal only under certain circumstances” (see the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online). Over the years, support for that view has fluctuated between 48 and 61 percent, with no overall trend.

Americans’ views on the death penalty have been more volatile. Support for the death penalty declined in the 1950s and ’60s, hitting a low of 42 percent in 1966. It rose during the 1980s and 1990s. By the mid-1990s, 75-80 percent of Americans supported it. Most recent polls show support has fallen to about 65 percent and that support for the alternative of life without parole is increasing.

Church teachings

The church’s opposition to abortion is clear and unconditional. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “since the first century the church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (#2271). The church’s view of capital punishment is more complicated. The “traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” but if “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means” (#2267). Alluding to recent advances in the forensic sciences, and referring to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the catechism states that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’ ” (#2267).

Catholics’ attitudes

There is a distinct gap between church teachings and American Catholics’ views on these important issues. The percentage of Catholics saying that one can be a good Catholic without agreeing with the church on abortion has risen from only 39 percent in 1987 (the year of our first survey) to 58 percent in 2005. There also are striking generational differences among our 2005 respondents. Only 44 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics say you can be a good Catholic without agreeing with the church’s opposition to abortion. That figure rises to 56 percent among Vatican II Catholics, 59 percent among post-Vatican II Catholics, and 89 percent among Millennials. Clearly, Catholics do not feel as bound by the church’s pro-life stance on abortion as they once did.

In Religion and Politics in the United States, political scientist Kenneth Wald shows that 55 to 65 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants stress a woman’s right to choose and 35-45 percent oppose abortion or believe it should be used under very limited conditions. Catholics and mainline Protestants are not as pro-life as evangelical and African-American Protestants, but they also are not as pro-choice as Jews and people with no religious preference.

Catholics also disagree with church teachings about the death penalty. A majority of Catholics support stiffer enforcement of the death penalty (54 percent in 1999, when we first asked this question, and 57 in 2005). However, our 2005 survey suggests that the gap between church teachings and Catholics’ attitudes on this issue might be narrowing. The largest generational difference on this question is between the three older generations (54 to 61 percent of whom approve of stiffer enforcement) and Millennials (only 41 percent of whom approve).

At a glance

Are Catholics who take a pro-life position on abortion any more likely than other Catholics to take a pro-life position on the death penalty, as the seamless garment thesis suggests? If so, only slightly. Only 46 percent of Catholics who say one cannot be a good Catholic without opposing abortion and only 39 percent of those who say one can be a good Catholic without opposing abortion also oppose stiffer enforcement of the death penalty.

If there is any relationship between the two, some of the connection can be attributed to religious commitment. Weekly Mass attenders and people who pray on a daily basis are more pro-life on both issues than Catholics who go to church and pray less often. But socioeconomic and political factors also affect the way Catholics think about these issues. Older, southern Catholics who have a high school education or less and tend to be Republicans or Independents are most likely to be pro-life on the abortion issue. However, these conditions do not promote a pro-life view of the death penalty. Catholics who have a college education and are Democrats or Independents are most likely to be pro-life on the death penalty, but tend to be pro-choice on abortion.


In short, there is some decline in both the frequency of abortions and the use of the death penalty -- findings that should please church leaders. Americans’ attitudes about abortion have not changed much, but their support of the death penalty seems to be declining. There continues to be a gap between the church’s opposition to abortion and Catholics’ views on the subject, and that gap seems to be widening among young adults. We do not have any trend data showing a decline in Catholics’ support for the death penalty, but generational differences suggest there might be some convergence between church teachings and Catholics’ views on this issue. Prayer and Mass attendance foster a consistent life ethic, but socioeconomic and political influences do not. Catholics who are pro-life on one issue find themselves in contexts that make it difficult for them to be pro-life on the other as well. The consistent life ethic is a compelling theological construct and religious commitment fosters it, at least to some degree. But, social, cultural and political influences make it difficult for lay people to embrace it in their daily lives.

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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