When Catholics are less Catholic than non-Catholics

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 20, 2014

The Catholic Church does not settle doctrinal questions by majority vote. And since surveys of Catholic opinion usually record the answers of any respondents who identify themselves as Catholics, we don’t have many reliable indications of what faithful, practicing Catholics think, anyway.

Nevertheless, sometimes a poll provides results that are interesting in themselves, even if they don’t offer an accurate measure of authentic Catholic opinon. This survey from the Saint Leo College Polling Institute is one example.

According to the Saint Leo poll, Catholic Americans believe, by a whopping 68-18% margin (with 14% undecided) that Catholics who are divorced and remarried should be admitted to Communion. At a similarly overwhelming rate (66-21) they think the Church should accept artificial contraception. A solid voting majority (50-33) would drop the ban on extra-marital sex as well. And by a slight plurality, they would accept same-sex marriages, too.

I know, I know. You’ve seen this sort of poll before. No doubt you’ll see many more such surveys in the coming year. You could (and should) wonder how the questions were worded and how the results were recorded. Above all you should wonder about the sample. If the same questions were addressed to practicing Catholics, the results would be very different. But you know all that; these are familiar arguments.

What makes this particular St. Leo survey so interesting is the fact that the answers are broken into two categories: the responses from Catholics and those from non-Catholics. In every case, the answers from non-Catholics are substantially closer to the teachings of the Catholic Church!

Take a look: while 68% of Catholics think that divorced/remarried Catholics should receive Communion, only 47% of non-Catholics agree. Catholic respondents were more likely to accept same-sex marriage (42-36%) and to favor acceptance of cohabitation (by 50-36%) and contraception (66-59%). We already knew that lapsed Catholics are more likely to dissent from Catholic orthodoxy than practicing Catholics; that’s no surprise. It’s noteworthy that, if this poll is accurate, lapsed Catholics are more likely to dissent from Catholic orthodoxy than non-Catholics as well.

Most pollsters figure that a "Catholic" is anyone who claims to profess the Catholic faith. It would complicate their calculations quite a bit if it turns out that the people least likely to profess the Catholic faith are among the ones who claim to profess it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Saint Jimbob of the Apokalypse - Oct. 21, 2014 10:34 AM ET USA

    We should, somehow, arrange to do that same poll to Tuesday morning Mass-goers and Holy Day of Obligation attendees.. I bet the results would be very different than self-reported/self-reputed "catholics"..

  • Posted by: - Oct. 20, 2014 5:57 PM ET USA

    Would be interesting to see what the numbers are for Catholics who self-identify as traditionalists. Pretty sure the numbers would add up almost exactly iin line with Catholic doctrine. Of course, Pope Francis linking us with intellectuals is a pill that doesn't go down too easily.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 20, 2014 3:21 PM ET USA

    20 years ago a very famous secular researcher psychologist (Martin Seligman) found that the most conservative christians were not Catholic. Indeed, in terms of religious practice and beliefs, PRACTICING Catholics were much closer in their attitudes to Methodists, than evangelical protestants. The point of the research was to look at the relationship of hope, mental health, and religious fervor. Across these three dimensions, PRACTICING Catholics lagged behind the conservative protestant.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 20, 2014 3:00 PM ET USA

    Exactly. And just to add emphasis to the dangers of Catholic leaders, over decades, attempting to placate political forces that might not prove to reciprocate the tolerance and mercy, "City threatens to arrest ministers who refuse to perform same-sex weddings." Headline posted just hours ago on Fox News. Sometimes it can be too late to get one's act together; perhaps there will be no harsher judges than our very own. Teach, bear witness, love and let the chips fall where they may.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 20, 2014 2:49 PM ET USA

    What you say about the poll methodology is true, I'm sure, but it does not reassure me. I've seen too many parish gatherings where discussion followed a video or some other activity. The comments I've heard there make me squirm; it's clear the people in the pew have their own "version" of acceptable Catholic practices and no one, not even a priest, is going to easily dislodge these bizarre notions. I'm sure many of them were loudly cheering the initial reports from the Synod. Disheartening.