May 6, 2002

From the Archives

Catholics Torn by Emotional and Theological Turmoil

The public’s attention has been focused on news regarding the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Recent national surveys have shown that the public’s image of the Catholic Church has declined precipitously during that period. A new nationwide survey by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, indicates that millions of Catholic adults are struggling to clarify their feelings and beliefs in the wake of the child molestation revelations.

The Barna survey shows that since January there has been a big drop in the percentage of Catholics who say they are “absolutely committed to Christianity,” declining by eleven percentage points to just 30%. That is the lowest level of “absolute commitment” measured among Catholics by Barna Research since the firm began tracking that measure a decade ago.

However, the survey also shows that most other indicators have remained relatively stable since the scandal has become public. Measures concerning Catholics’ self-identification with the Roman Catholic Church, the importance of their religious faith, their personal commitment to Jesus Christ, the incidence of Bible reading, prayer, church volunteerism and small group involvement are virtually unchanged compared to January’s figures.

Perhaps the most surprising change has been a seven percentage point rise in church attendance among Catholics since January – including a 10-point increase among Catholics who have children under 18 living in their home. (About four out of every ten Catholic adults lives in a household with one or more children under 18 years of age.) Catholics who do not have children under 18 experienced a smaller increase since January (five points). Even when compared to church attendance levels of a year earlier, to allow for seasonal variations, there has been a jump of six points among all Catholics in church attendance since a year ago.

Different Segments React

Overall, Catholics who have children under the age of 18 have reacted most severely to the crisis. That group has experienced noteworthy declines in “absolute commitment” to Christianity (down 15 percentage points from a year earlier), personal commitment to Jesus Christ (down 14 points), the importance of religious faith in their life (down 10 points) and a decline in Bible reading (down five points).

Catholic women have also shifted their views dramatically in the past year. They have undergone a 10-point drop in levels of absolute commitment to Christianity, a 10-point drop in personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and an 11-point decline in those who say their religious faith is very important in their life. At the same time, there has been a seven-percentage point improvement in the number of Catholic women who read the Bible.

In terms of age groups, the Baby Boomers have been the hardest hit. Boomers were the group most likely to see drops in levels of absolute commitment to Christianity (down seven points), and the importance of religious faith (down 16 points). While church attendance rose by large margins among younger and older Catholics, it remained static among Boomers.

Emotion Versus Doctrine

The crisis has caused many Catholics to reflect on the nature of their faith and the depth of their relationship with their church, according to the study’s director, George Barna. “Millions of Catholics are torn between their personal faith in God and Jesus Christ and their emotional loyalty to their church. Confounding the issue for many Catholics is their desire to honor God – which includes attending Mass to avoid sin – yet not wanting to necessarily intimate support for priests or other individuals who tacitly represent the people who have caused the pain and controversy in the church. This internal conflict of values is most acutely present among the parents of younger children as they strive to reconcile protecting their family and protecting their souls. It is a difficult time for many Catholics as they balance these competing insecurities and try to figure out what is the appropriate response for their family.”

Barna noted that the Catholic Church has not been hard hit by defection to date. “It appears that many Catholics are waiting to see how their church handles the situation before making any final decisions. Again, there are conflicting factors that many Catholics are weighing. On the one hand, Pope John Paul II is very popular among Catholics and is widely trusted as a man of integrity. On the other hand, there is constant discussion of his health and possible abdication of the papacy, producing a greater sense of anxiety and imminent instability. The researcher also discussed the options being considered by many Catholics. “On the one hand there is a growing openness among Catholics to participation in non-Catholic churches. On the other hand, many of the churches whose traditions and practices are most easily understood and adopted by Catholics have embraced gay ministers or are involved in debating the acceptance of homosexual leaders. Given the nature of the crisis facing the Catholic Church, that has tempered the interest of many Catholics in jumping ship to a ‘Catholic-friendly’ denomination.”

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the United States with 25% of all American adults currently identifying themselves as Catholic. Less than half as many adults list the nation’s second largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, as their denominational affiliation.

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based upon telephone surveys with nationwide random samples of 1000 or more adults conducted January 2001, April 2001, July 2001, October 2001, January 2002 and April 2002. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (The sampling error for subgroups would be higher because the sample size of those segments is smaller. There are other types of error besides sampling error that may be present in surveys.) The sub-samples of adults who described themselves as Catholic averaged 230 people per survey and have maximum sampling error estimates of ±7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

Survey Data – Faith Attributes of American Catholics
(April 2001 and April 2002)
absolutely committed to Christianity
made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ
religious faith is very important in their life
attended church in the past seven days
read from the Bible in the past seven days
sample size

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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