Pew Research study says U.S. Catholics open to non-traditional families

Wed, Sep 2nd 2015 01:00 pm

When Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families later this month, he will find a Catholic public that is remarkably accepting of a variety of non-traditional families, according to a new Pew Research Center survey that provides an in-depth look at American Catholics' views on family life, sexuality and Catholic identity.

Nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say that a household headed by a married mother and father is an ideal situation for bringing up children. But the survey shows that large majorities think that other kinds of families - those headed by parents who are single, divorced, unmarried or gay - are OK for raising children, too.

This may be in part because Francis' American flock is experiencing life in all its modern complexity. According to the survey, one-in-four Catholics have gone through a divorce. One-in-ten have divorced and remarried. One-in-ten are living with a romantic partner, sans wedding, and more than four-in-ten have done so at some point in their lives.

When it comes to matters of sexuality, there are a number of issues on which Catholics either mostly disagree with the church (e.g., on the question of whether Catholics should be permitted to use birth control) or are divided (e.g., on the question of whether the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples).

But there are also numerous ways in which Catholics express their dedication to the church and its teachings. For example, seven-in-ten Catholics say they cannot ever imagine leaving the church. Nearly six-in-ten Catholics say abortion is a sin. And more than half say devotion to Mary and receiving the sacraments are "essential" to what being Catholic means to them personally.

The survey also shows that the United States is a nation of people whose ties to Catholicism run both deep and broad. Fully 45% of Americans are connected to Catholicism in some way, including one-fifth who claim the faith as their current religion, one-tenth who were raised in the faith and have now fallen away, and a similar share who maintain a cultural connection to Catholicism.

The latter group - "cultural Catholics" - do not identify Catholicism as their religion; most are Protestants or say they have no religion. But they do identify as Catholic or partially Catholic in another way. This attachment to Catholicism shows up in their lives in various ways: For example, one-third say they attend Mass at least occasionally. And among cultural Catholics who were raised in the church, roughly four-in-ten say they could imagine returning to the faith someday.

The new survey also suggests that Pope Francis may have a difficult time persuading Catholics in the U.S. to adopt his philosophy about excess and his focus on the environment. Though six-in-ten Catholics say working to help the poor and needy is essential to their Catholic identity, only about half as many say the same about working to address climate change. Catholics are divided on the question of whether it is sinful to spend money on luxuries without also giving to the poor, but large majorities say it is not a sin to live in a house larger than needed or to use energy without concern for the impact on the environment. The survey finds that Hispanic Catholics are much more inclined than non-Hispanic whites to express concerns about the morality of excessive consumption.

These are among the key findings of the Pew Research Center's 2015 Survey of U.S. Catholics and Family Life, conducted May 5-June 7, 2015, on landlines and cellphones among a national probability sample of 5,122 adults, including 1,016 self-identified Catholics, with a margin of sampling error of +/- 3.5 percentage points for Catholics and +/- 1.6 percentage points for the full sample.

The findings are for immediate release and are available at

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