A Catholic Analysis of Pew’s New Look at Our Religious Landscape

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is one of the leading Catholic social scientists and writers in the U.S. You’ve probably seen him on television, providing comentary during news events involving the Catholic church. Late Monday, Tom provided this Catholic perspective on the new Pew data. He is a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological
Center at Georgetown

He headlined his analysis this way:




What is most striking about the Catholic responses to the Pew Forum
Religious Landscape Survey is how closely Catholics match the national


On social and political questions like party affiliation, political
ideology, abortion, the government’s role in protecting morality, environmental
protection, and the country’s role in world affairs, Catholics are within 2 to 3
percentage points of the national responses.


Only on “size of government” and “views of homosexuality” do Catholics
depart from the national statistics by much. On both, Catholics take a more
liberal view by 5 percentage points for “bigger government and more services”
and by 8 percentage points saying “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”
Catholics are more liberal on homosexuality than Evangelicals, Mainline
Christians, and Black Protestants.


This similarity to the national norm on political and social questions
may reflect the fact that Catholics are also similar to the nation
demographically. The statistics on Catholics for age, gender, income, and
education reflect the national numbers within 2 to 3 percentage points. More
Catholics tend to be married (4 percentage points) and have slightly higher
numbers of children than the national average. Demographically, the biggest
difference between Catholics and
America at large
is the high percent of Hispanics (29 percent versus 12 percent for the nation).


On matters of belief and practice, Catholic responses are somewhat more
positive than the nation as a whole on belief in God, importance of religion in
one’s life, church attendance and frequency of prayer. Evangelicals and Black
Protestants typically have more positive responses on these questions than


Catholics are less likely than the nation to believe that
Scripture is the “word of God, literally true, word for word,” and more likely
see it as the “word of God, but not literally true, word for word” or as a “book
written by men, not the word of God.”


Catholics are also more likely to say “There is more than one true way to
interpret the teachings of my religion” (77 percent versus 68 percent for the nation). Clearly,
Catholics find no problem with many voices in their church interpreting their
faith in different ways since Vatican II. Only mainline Christians and
non-Christians (except Muslims) score higher.


Catholics are also more likely to say “many religions can lead to eternal
life” (79 percent versus 70 percent for the nation). This shows the impact of Vatican II and
ecumenism on Catholics, who no longer believe that non-Catholics go to Hell. It
also reflects the contemporary Catholic experience of living and working side by
side with non-Catholics outside the Catholic ghetto. They do not believe that
their God would consign their friends and colleagues to Hell.

THEN, TOM APPARENTLY FOUND HIMSELF DIGGING through the Pew data in depth. That’s a real temptation with such a rich load of data. Monday evening, he sent out some MORE Catholic distinctions he turned up in the data that he regards as noteworthy.

  • Catholics are more likely to believe in heaven (82% vs. 74%) than the nation as a whole, but are just as likely to believe in hell (60% vs. 59%).
  • Catholics are also more likely to believe in evolution (58% vs. 48% for the nation).
  • Catholics are more likely to be members of a congregation (67% vs. 61%) than the national as a whole, but their participation in congregation activities such as choir, volunteer work, work with children or social activities tend to be lower (31% vs. 37%). This may be partially due to the fact that Catholic congregations tend to be larger.
  • Catholics still read the scriptures less than typical Americans. Only 21% of Catholics say they read the scriptures daily compared to 35% of the nation. Fifty-seven percent of Catholics say they seldom or never read the scriptures compared to 45% of the nation.
  • Likewise, only 29% of Catholics say they participate in prayer groups or other religious activities at least once a month, compared to 40% for the nation.
  • Sixty two percent of Catholics say they seldom or never share their faith with others, compared to 47% for the nation.
  • Only 36% of Catholics think their church should “preserve its traditions and practices,” while 57% think it should “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.” For the nation, the numbers are 44% and 47%.
  • Catholics are less likely to think there is a conflict between religion and modern society than the nation (34% vs. 40%).
  • When given a series of choices, Catholics are less likely to say their religion is what most influences their thinking about government and public affairs (9% vs. 14%) than the nation as a whole.
  • Catholics like all Americans believe that “good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace,” but by slightly greater margins (64% vs. 59%).

Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Senior Fellow

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