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Fact Sheet | American Catholics and Public Policy

[03.21.2014]

I. American Catholics in Transition

For the past two decades, Catholics have constituted a relatively stable one-fifth of the American population, making them one of the largest religious groups in the United States. However, Catholics have experienced significant internal transitions during this period.

  • Ethnic makeup. Today, 6-in-10 (60 percent) Catholics are white, while more than one-third (34 percent) are Hispanic. [PRRI, February 2014]
  • Religious switching. Of all major religious groups, Catholics have experienced the largest net loss of adherents due to switching religious affiliation, but these losses have been largely offset by Hispanic immigration to the United States. Although three-in-ten (30 percent) Americans report that they were raised Catholic, only 20 percent currently identify that way, a net loss of ten percentage points. Notably, 12 percent of Americans today are former Catholics. [PRRI, February 2014] 

II. Church Tradition and Public Policy Priorities for the Church

  • Tradition. Nearly 4-in-10 (37 percent) American Catholics say that their church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices, while 6-in-10 say either that their church should adjust traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances (37 percent) or adopt modern beliefs and practices (23 percent). [PRRI, July 2013]
  • Public policy priorities. Six-in-ten (60 percent) American Catholics agree that in its statements about public policy, the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life. By contrast, nearly one-third (31 percent) of American Catholics agree that the Catholic Church should focus more on abortion and the right to life in its statements about public policy, even if means focusing less on issues like social justice and the obligation to help the poor. [PRRI, October 2012]
    • Among Catholics who attend church at least once a week, a slim majority (51 percent) believe the Church’s public policy statements should focus more on social justice and helping the poor, compared to 36 percent who believe that the Catholic Church should focus more on issues like abortion and the right to life. [PRRI, October 2012]

III. Sexuality and Rights for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans

  • Marriage. A majority (57 percent) of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. [PRRI, February 2014]
    • Majorities of both white Catholics (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. [PRRI, February 2014]
    • A majority of Catholics (52 percent) favor requiring the federal government to recognize marriages between gay and lesbian couples that were performed in states where they are legal. [PRRI, March 2013]
    • More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Catholics agree that same-sex relationships should be accepted by society. [PRRI, March 2013]
  • Adoption. A majority (61 percent) of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. [PRRI, February 2014]
  • Workplace rights for gay, lesbian, transgender employees.
    • Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Catholics favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian couples against job discrimination. [PRRI, February 2014]
    • More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Catholics agree that Congress should pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination. [PRRI, September 2011]
  • Sexual orientation. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholics believe that a gay or lesbian person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed, compared to one-quarter (25 percent) who believe it can be changed [PRRI, March 2013]. A majority (56 percent) of Catholics believe sexual orientation is something a person is born with, while 25 percent believe sexual orientation is due to factors such as upbringing or environment; twelve percent of Catholics say sexual orientation is due to both factors.  [PRRI,  February 2014]
  • Morality of same-gender sexual relationships. Catholics are divided on whether sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable (43 percent) or morally wrong (49 percent). [PRRI, February 2014]
  • Church position. Nearly half (46 percent) of Catholics believe the position of the Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality is too conservative, a similar percentage (43 percent) believe it is about right, and 6 percent believe it is too liberal. [PRRI, July 2011]
  • Clergy ordination. A majority of Catholics (54 percent) agree that gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination as clergy with no special requirements; nearly 4-in-10 Catholics (37 percent) disagree. [PRRI, March 2013]

IV. Abortion

  • Legality. Catholics are divided on the legality of abortion. Forty-six percent of Catholics agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 47 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. However, there are notable ethnic divisions in views on abortion among Catholics. [PRRI, February 2014]
    • Half (50 percent) of white Catholics say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 43 percent who say it should be illegal in all or most cases. Among Hispanic Catholics, 38 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to a majority (54 percent) who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. [PRRI, February 2014]
  • Morality. More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Catholics believe that abortion is morally wrong, but there are large ethnic divisions on this question. [PRRI, February 2014]
    • A majority of white Catholics (56 percent) believe that having an abortion is morally wrong, while one-third (33 percent) believe it is morally acceptable. Ten percent say the morality of abortion depends on the situation. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Hispanic Catholics believe having an abortion is morally wrong, compared to only 12 percent who believe having an abortion is morally acceptable. Additionally, 10 percent of Hispanic Catholics say it depends on the particular situation.
  • Church position. More than 4-in-10 Catholics (44 percent) think that the Catholic Church’s position on the issue of abortion is too conservative, a similar number (45 percent) think it is about right, and 7 percent think the Catholic Church’s position on abortion is too liberal. [PRRI, April 2011].

V. Contraception

  • Morality. More than 8-in-10 (81 percent) Catholics agree that using artificial birth control methods, also known as contraceptives, is morally acceptable. [PRRI, October 2012]
  • Availability. Catholics are evenly divided over whether they believe methods of birth control should be generally available to teenagers 16 years of age or older (49 percent favor, 49 percent oppose). [PRRI/RNS, March 2012]

VI. The Death Penalty

  • Death penalty vs. life in prison. A majority (52 percent) of Catholics say that people convicted of murder should receive life in prison with no chance of parole, while 41 percent prefer the death penalty. [PRRI Pre-Election American Values Survey, October 2012]
    • Nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) Hispanic Catholics prefer life in prison with no chance of parole for people convicted of murder, rather than the death penalty. White Catholics are divided: 48 percent favor life in prison, while 47 percent favor the death penalty. [PRRI, October 2012]
  • Morality. A slim majority (51 percent) of Catholics say the death penalty is morally acceptable, compared to 60 percent of Americans overall. [PRRI, October 2012]

VII. Immigration Reform

  • Path to citizenship. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholics favor allowing immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, while 16 percent favor allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and 18 percent favor identifying and deporting them. [PRRI/Brookings, March 2013]
    •  More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) white Catholics favor allowing immigrants who are living in the country illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, roughly 1-in-10 favor allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and roughly one-quarter favor identifying and deporting them. [PRRI/Brookings, March 2013]
    • Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Hispanic Catholics favor allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, roughly 1-in-5 (21 percent) favor allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and only four percent favor identifying and deporting them. [PRRI/Brookings, March 2013]
  • DREAM Act. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholics favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college, the basic tenets of the DREAM Act. [PRRI/Brookings, March 2013]

VIII. Economic Opportunity and Inequality

  • Equal opportunity. A majority (53 percent) of American Catholics agree that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life, while more than 4-in-10 (42 percent) say that it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others. [PRRI, July 2013]
    • Hispanic Catholics (64 percent) are more likely than white Catholics (46 percent) to agree that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life. [PRRI, July 2013]
    • More than 6-in-10 (61 percent) younger Catholics (age 18-39) agree that one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life. Older Catholics (age 60 and older) are divided: 45 percent say this is a big problem, while 47 percent say it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others. [PRRI, July 2013]
  • Raising minimum wage. Nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Catholics favor increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour while 1-in-5 (20 percent) disagree. [PRRI, October 2013]
  • Raising taxes on wealthy. More than 6-in-10 Catholics (63 percent) favor increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $250,000 a year and more than one-third (34 percent) opposes increasing taxes on the wealthy. [PRRI, July 2013]