September 2, 2015

Key findings about American Catholics

Many American Catholics are abuzz about Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States as pontiff. Francis’ trip later this month includes a meeting with President Obama and an address to a joint session of Congress in Washington before he goes on to New York (and the United Nations) and, finally, to Philadelphia for the 2015 World Meeting of Families.

The trip is part of a busy fall for the pope. The Catholic Church also will convene a synod on family issues at the Vatican in October; the synod will examine the role in the church of divorced and remarried Catholics as well as gays and lesbians. Ahead of these events, the Pew Research Center asked American Catholics for their views about family structures, religious beliefs and practices and other topics.

Here are several key findings from the new survey:

1Most American Catholics are comfortable with family arrangements that have been traditionally frowned upon by the church. For example, most U.S. Catholics say it is at least “acceptable” – and many say it is just “as good as” any other arrangement – for children to be raised by unmarried parents, gay or lesbian parents, single parents or divorced parents. Majorities also are accepting of a husband and wife who choose not to have children, a man and woman living together romantically without being married, and a same-sex couple living together.

Catholics Say Traditional Families Are Ideal

2The survey finds that the share of Americans with some connection to Catholicism approaches half of the country’s adults – 45%. This includes 20% who identify their religion as Catholic. Another 9% are categorized by the survey as “cultural Catholics” – those whose primary religious identity is not Catholic (most are Protestants or religious “nones”), but who say they consider themselves Catholic or partially Catholic in some way. An additional 9% are ex-Catholics – those who were raised Catholic but now eschew any Catholic identity. And 8% have other connections to Catholicism, such as having a Catholic spouse.

3Among all U.S. adults who were raised Catholic, half (52%) have left the church at some point in their life. This includes some whose departure was only temporary: 11% of all people raised Catholic left the church but later returned. But about four-in-ten of those raised Catholic now do not identify as Catholic by religion, including 28% who do not identify as Catholic in any way (“ex-Catholics”).

4Even among those who identify as Catholic, many disagree with church teaching about what constitutes a sin in some family-related areas. Roughly half or more of U.S. Catholics say that using contraceptives, living with a romantic partner outside of marriage and remarrying after a divorce without an annulment are not sins. And about four-in-ten (39%) say homosexual behavior is not a sin.

5Catholics Who Regularly Attend Mass Less Accepting of Non-Traditional FamiliesCatholics who attend Mass at least weekly are more likely than other Catholics to have opinions that align with church policies and teachings. But even among frequent churchgoers, majorities are open to non-traditional family arrangements. For example, roughly a third of Catholics who attend Mass weekly (34%) say children being raised by a same-sex couple is acceptable and as good as any other arrangement, which is similar to the share who see this as unacceptable (36%).

6Catholics Views on Working to Help the PoorOn another topic Pope Francis has brought to the fore – poverty and its relationship with climate change – most U.S. Catholics (62%) say working to help the poor and needy is essential to what being Catholic means to them. But fewer (41%) say it is a sin to buy luxury goods without contributing to the poor. And fewer still express concerns about environmental issues in a religious context: 29% say working to address climate change (as urged by Pope Francis in an encyclical released shortly after the survey was conducted) is an essential part of their Catholic identity, and 23% say it is a sin to use energy without considering the environment.

Topics: Religion and Society, Household and Family Structure, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Catholics and Catholicism, Christians and Christianity

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Dude Dude2 years ago

    I’m Roman Catholic and I was not included, for the record.

  2. maxer2 years ago

    I used to be a devout catholic. I was taught to love everyone regardless of race ,creed. Jesus’s teachings were my favorite, I kept forgiving people and loving everyone I met, until the church kept opposing homosexuality and grading it as a sin,until the day colored people started being looked down upon by church, until the day women started being treated secondary by the church as inferior to men. I started reasoning with logic, the bible had turned into a nightmare, which I realized was completely different than the masked children’s bible I was given as a kid. There was such filth, hatred ,ignorance, bigotry, sexism, in that manipulated book. It was as if satan himself had written that book which promoted hatred for all. Discrimination was a prime ordeal in its teachings. I gave up catholicism and became an atheist as I realized it was all a scam ,a total mindless scam, to be a good person you don’t need to follow any book or any made up god, just help the poor and needy by actually visiting them ,rather than feeding organizations like churches where the priests and nuns live a life of luxury on your hard earned money and do nothing for the poor. what a shame and disgrace religion has become, it’s become the prime element of hatred and war, rather than promoting justice and equality, it’s become the exact cause of everything and anything you would like to fight against to be a good person with a conscience.

  3. ANNE2 years ago

    How many of the Catholics polled attend Mass every Sunday ?
    This should be a question asked in all PEW polls.
    (It is required to attend Mass every Sunday to be a Catholic.
    Others are Catholic heretics and/or schismatics by Church definition.)

    1. David Kent2 years ago

      Anne, Thanks for your interest. That information is found in this section of the main report:…

  4. eileen kardos2 years ago

    I wonder why there was no mention of the idea that accused sexual offenders amongst clergy should go to court, like anyone else. Does this study deal with that issue? Huge issue. very strange it wasn’t mentioned…. or was it?

  5. undefined2 years ago

    I think if one leaves the Church one should be sure it is for good reason.
    The main reason I left is because if there is an all good and all perfect and all powerful God he has no needs and therefore no right to command us. Rights come from needs not wants. Instead of sin we should simply believe in wrongdoing. Sin is a religious crime. Its not the same thing.

    The men of God cannot ask you to worship them for it lays too high of a burden on them to be perfect. So they say they are the humble servants of God. They invent a God – when you serve the God invented by men it is those men who benefit not God. You adore their creation and worship them by proxy. They are better than any God for they invent God.

    People serve corrupt religions and say, “I give this religion money and worship at its rites and I do it for God not the kind of people that run it.” They might mean this or they might be just making an excuse. If God asked these leaders to preach his gospel and to preserve it and gave them guidance then God is putting huge trust in them. It is their word you have that they speak for God not his word. Whether a religion is from God or man you will still be trusting man. If it is from God that is down to luck. You are depending on luck. A God who gives you his word through a man is asking you to trust that man alone. There is no greater trust than that put in man when man says he speaks for the only ultimately important being and gives his sacred truths.

    If there is no God, then it is man saying that the terrible things that happen to babies are justifiable for they are part of God’s plan. Do you see how terrible that is? Man is condoning random evil for the sake of belief. What does it say about man?

  6. Martin Screeton2 years ago

    My perception growing up in the Catholic church is that there has always been two Catholics… One with eyes and arms wide open to accepting others as they are without regard for church teaching or doctrine. The other Catholic that I’ve experienced is of course the more rigid type that segments humans and obeys church doctrine and is much less accepting. This is more psychological and anthropological then anything else and can explain humans across the earth with perceptions and acceptance of ‘the other’ humans. I think all ‘church belief systems’ will eventually breakdown and be declared just man made congregators… which serves an important social function if all the humans are accepted without judgement.

    1. Rob Lawrence2 years ago

      Yes, there are two kinds of Catholics- sinners who fall down, confess their failings and keep trying; and sinners who deny their sin and find fault with the faith or the Church.

  7. R. T. Neary2 years ago

    These results should not surprise any observant Roman Catholic today. There are clearly two churches, broken down into subsections. The first is ceremonial, at times pompous and makes great fare for the media. The other is engaged on the front lines of the Culture War – and in turn being maligned for a willingness to openly protest the willful destruction of the family and innocent humans. The infant body parts harvesting and sale revelations by Planned Parenthood places us in a time warp – with 1930-40s Nazi Germany re-visited in the U.S. in 2015. This should surely be the last straw. Will it? The smoke of Satan has truly produced a climate change, and it has sadly permeated the total culture of America. The once-proud Roman Catholic Church is beyond the mortar disintegrating. The hierarchy and powers-to-be have added blinders to their lavish vestments. Lord, help us!

  8. Charles N. Marrelli2 years ago

    We were warned many years ago, actually s far back as 1979; Charles E. Rice, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, argued in his book, Beyond Abortion, “It is unrealistic to think that the respect for life can be restored merely by dealing with the symptom, legalized abortion. The key is awakening an awareness of and educating to counteract the dangerous trend toward total secularization. We cannot look to government to relieve the problems it has helped create. The decline of the churches’ has been in direct proportion to their willingness to turn their responsibilities over to the state and to become beneficiaries of government handouts.” Money and principle too often collide! Secularization and politization have influence our Church leaders and we are now suffering the effects!
    Writers for Life at

  9. Steve Petersen2 years ago

    Re: key findings about American Catholics
    The Washington Post coverage of this article says that about half of all Americans raised as Catholics have left the faith, many because they no longer accept “church teachings”. My own observation as an ex-catholic (with 14 years of catholic education) is that most of us simply no longer believe in the God of the bible, i.e. an omniscient, omnipotent creator who can read our minds and judge us after death and send us to eternal hell if we did not obtain forgiveness for our “sins”. What I want to know is, What percent of Americans raised Catholic left the church because they no longer believe in God or are at least agnostic about belief in God?

    1. Michael Lipka2 years ago


      Thanks for your comment and question. We did ask people who were raised Catholic but who no longer identify as Catholic to explain the main reason they left the church (in their own words). The results (Q.N20) can be found in the topline on page 137 of the full report:…

      I hope this helps answer your question.

      Michael Lipka

  10. tim conley2 years ago

    I would like to know how this survey was conducted? By phone? EAIL? In person? Did you primarily survey practicing Catholics or Catholics who have left the church? Also, how many participants were there, over what period of time? It would be most helpful if in your articles describing findings from a survey, if you would include this data. This would lend more credibility to your research.

    1. Michael Lipka2 years ago


      The survey methodology included in the main report should answer all of those questions:…

      Thanks for your interest in our research.

      Michael Lipka

  11. Dunstan Harding2 years ago

    I’m not surprised to see this gulf and the fact it’s growing wider. This is a tale of two faiths, the religion of the RC hierarchy and the religion of everyone else in the church. In effect, the pew dwellers have rejected their religious leadership and will probably continue to do so.

    1. Bill Guentner2 years ago

      First, I need to ask Mr. Harding if he is Catholic. If he is not Catholic he can be forgiven for being in error about the theology of the Catholic faith. If he is Catholic I ask why he can make a statement that Catholicism has two faiths; one of the hierarchy and one for everyone in the Church. The hierarchy does not make the “rules” as to what is sinful and not. That decision has been made by God and revealed to us in Scripture by the Holy Spirit. If “everyone else in the Church’ decides to act against what God has prescribed that act sinfully. By rejecting God’s commands they also reject those who have been charged to preach, teach and keep the faith intact. So please think before you post erroneous statements. I would also suggest if you would like to know what the Catholic Church teaches you buy the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read it. Education is a wonderful endeavor.

      1. Edward Clements2 years ago

        Mr. Harding is just recognizing what seem to be the facts on the ground. He didn’t say that “Catholicism has two faiths”, he said that there are two faiths which seem to co-exist within the universe of those who self-describe as Catholics: one which accepts the body of doctrine of the RCC, and another that outright rejects it. In the case of homosexuality, 70% of Catholics believe that same sex couples co-habitating is “acceptable” or “good”, in direct contravention of Catholic teaching. Kind of shows that the RC criticism of Protestants for being doctrinally all over the map is pretty hollow.