September 25, 2015

What’s a sin? Catholics don’t always agree with their church

Pope Francis has publicly urged Catholics to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession, reminding them that “we are all sinners” and the shame associated with sin is “a grace” that prepares them for God’s forgiveness.

Despite the pontiff’s entreaties, only about four-in-ten U.S. Catholics (43%) say they go to confession at least once a year and 28% say they never go, according to Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of U.S. Catholics.

And yet, this lukewarm embrace of confession does not reflect a disbelief in sin: Roughly nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics (89%) do believe that some actions are offensive to God. Indeed, most American adults (78%) believe the same, including 91% of Protestants.  At the same time, however, many American Catholics do not agree with church teachings on what constitutes sinful behavior in several areas.

According to U.S. Catholics, Which Behaviors Are Sinful?

For instance, the recent Pew Research survey finds that U.S. Catholics are divided on homosexual behavior, with 44% saying it is sinful and 39% saying it is not – a figure that rises to 51% among Catholic adults under age 30. And majorities of Catholics say that living with a romantic partner outside marriage (54%) and getting a divorce (61%) are not sinful. About half (49%) say remarrying after a divorce without first obtaining an annulment is not a sin.

In addition, fully two-thirds of U.S. Catholics (66%) say using artificial birth control is not a sin. Even 57% of the most devout Catholics – those who report attending Mass at least weekly – say using contraceptives is not wrong.

Those who attend Mass weekly or more are divided over the sinfulness of cohabitation (46% say it is sinful, 45% say it is not). But these Catholics also are more likely to agree with church teachings when it comes to abortion and engaging in homosexual behavior: 73% and 59%, respectively, say these are sins. Indeed, a majority of all Catholics, regardless of whether they attend Mass regularly, say abortion is sinful (57%).

The pope has challenged Catholics to consider how their lifestyles harm the environment and how they can help the poor, but he may have some convincing to do during his U.S. visit this week. According to the latest Pew Research study of U.S. Catholics, 42% say buying luxury goods without giving to the poor is not sinful. And even larger shares say living in a house much larger than needed (73%) and using energy without considering its impact on the environment (61%) are not sins.

Topics: Religion and Society, Marriage and Divorce, Abortion, Gay Marriage and Homosexuality, Social Values, Catholics and Catholicism

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


  1. Thrufaithalone2 years ago

    Former Catholic here….I can say that the Catholic church is odd when it comes to sin. Eating meat on Fridays (all year round) used to be a “sin”. I could give all the variations that’s gone through with Lent over the years, and there are many more “sins” not listed in Scripture that the CC calls sin. Instead, I will skip to what God says is sin: it’s “transgression of the Law”. Whose law? God’s Law. Forever and always will be. No church, no society, and no culture can change that.

  2. Laurence Charles Ringo2 years ago

    My question always is: What does the Scriptures say?

  3. CalvinCoolidge isGOAT2 years ago

    Wow a lot of Catholics are just hypocrites through and through. Not all, by many. What is the most confusing part is where it says divorce is more sinful to Catholics than homo”sexuality”! Like wtf? Talk about being compromised and completely ignoring scripture.

    1. Daniel2 years ago

      But Jesus does speak against divorce and not homosexuality.

      1. 313Kriss2 years ago

        Jesus also said he did not come to change the Law but to fulfill it. Homosexual practices are not condoned in both the Old Testament and New Testament. It is not sinful to be a homosexual but the practice of homosexual acts is considered sinful – Biblically.

  4. Beth Grant DeRoos2 years ago

    A sin means to miss the mark when it comes to moral and ethical behavior. And most sins are from lack of self discipline. We all sin, but if we are to be better Christians we learn from the mistake/sin and do NOT repeat it.

    There are sins of commission like cheating, having an abortion, harming someone else. Then there sins of omission which are sins mentioned in James 4:17 declares, ‘Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.’ These could be where one doesn’t make an effort daily to help others. Could be not caring about the homeless, the environment, justice for all etc.

  5. Nope2 years ago

    The Yes/No dots are color coordinated. Most of you guys aren’t reading the data correctly! The dots switch places!

  6. David2 years ago

    It seems that many people don’t understand how to read this chart. The light blue dots represent the “no” responses and the dark blue dots represent the “yes” responses. So the copy and the chart are both correct.

    This might have been more evident if the labels were color coded like this:

  7. SDCD2 years ago

    There is no way that 71% of Catholics think drinking is sinful. The graph is all messed up. It represents the exact opposite. Try again. It’s a shame this got past the editors.

    1. Jerry2 years ago

      Please read the chart carefully before making comments.

  8. SDCD2 years ago

    Your graph is completely messed up. Can’t believe it got past the editors. It says the opposite of what the narrative says in many cases. Try again.

  9. John2 years ago

    One of us is reading these graphs incorrectly. I think that it is Caryle.

  10. Richard2 years ago

    Either the graph is wrong or the writer misconstrued the data. Carlyle Murphy writes, “And majorities of Catholics say that living with a romantic partner outside marriage (54%) and getting a divorce (61%) are not sinful. About half (49%) say remarrying after a divorce without first obtaining an annulment is not a sin.”

    Yet, the accompanying graph poses the question: “Do believe it is sinful to… ‘live with a romantic partner outside marriage’ (to which 54 percent say ‘yes’) and ‘remarry after divorce without annulment’ (to which 49 percent say yes).

    Is the graph wrong or is the story wrong? Another undisplayed graph perhaps?

    1. Robin2 years ago

      I think the colors representing “yes” and “no” in the chart are perhaps a bit too subtle — the “sins” are listed in order of ascending “no” percentages.

      So the chart is showing that most Catholics believe that most of these behaviors are not sinful.

      The chart and the article actually do match, but it’s also easy to accidentally read the chart incorrectly.

    2. Victor2 years ago

      No, Richard, the graph is color-coded, you are reading it wrong.

    3. Jacob2 years ago

      Both the graph and the paragraph are correct.
      The graph can appear a bit confusing at first because the “yes” and “no” responses are color coded, not arranged by side. The majority response is found on the right-hand side, regardless of whether the majority think a particular action is “sinful.” This means that for the first two questions about abortion and homosexual behavior the “yes” response percentages appear on the right, but all other questions show the “not sinful” response percentages on the right.
      Hope this helps!

  11. Tacony2 years ago

    The Catholic Church has never taught that drinking alcohol is sinful. Jesus famously “turns water into wine,” and at one point is called a “drunkard” after drinking a bit too much. Sacramental wine has been used in the Eucharist (as the “blood of Christ”) since the early church.

    The Church does caution against excessive drinking and drunkenness that leads to sinful activities, but the idea that drinking even a drop of alcohol is sinful on its own emerged much later in Protestant churches in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were some Catholic temperance groups in the US and UK in the 19th century, but this has never been a mainstream teaching of the church.

  12. Dblchk2 years ago

    This was interesting but it the graphic doesn’t always match the narrative. The table seems to say 61% of Catholics think it’s sinful to get a divorce, but that is different from what is said in the first paragraph.

    1. D2 years ago

      You’re misreading the article, 61% said that is NOT sinful