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Obama, Catholics and the Notre Dame Commencement

Most Catholics who have heard about the issue support the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak and receive an honorary degree at its May 17 commencement, even though he supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. But a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life also finds a deep division on this issue between the most-observant Catholics and those who are less observant, as defined by frequency of worship service attendance.

These findings are consistent with Catholic’s overall views of Obama: a majority voted for him in the 2008 presidential election and express approval of his performance in office thus far. The new findings are also consistent with Catholics’ views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, with pluralities in the poll expressing support for each. But a division between the most-observant Catholics and less-observant Catholics also is apparent on these issues.

Figure 1

In both their awareness and views of the Notre Dame controversy, Catholics look very much like the public overall. Only about half of Catholics have heard about the controversy and fewer than one-in-five (19%) have heard a lot about it. Among the general population, 48% have heard of the controversy and 16% have heard a lot about it. Overall, about half of Catholics support the decision to invite Obama to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree in spite of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Far fewer (28%) say Notre Dame was wrong to have invited Obama and more than one-in-five Catholics (22%) express no opinion on the matter. Among the population overall, 48% say Notre Dame made the right decision to invite Obama, 25% say it was the wrong decision and 27% express no opinion.

Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics, regular Mass attenders are more than three times as likely as those who attend less often to say they have heard a lot about the controversy (35% vs. 10%). However, even among regular Mass attenders, a sizable minority say they have not heard anything at all (32%). Regular church attenders also express much higher levels of disapproval of Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. Among white Catholics who attend church at least once a week, a plurality (45%) say it was wrong for Notre Dame to invite Obama, while the majority of less-observant Catholics (56%) take the opposite view, saying Notre Dame was right to invite him. (For more information on the link between church attendance and views of the Notre Dame controversy among all Catholics, see “Catholic Opinion on Notre Dame Controversy Differs by Church Attendance.”)

Figure 2

The absence of a general backlash on the part of Catholics to Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama may not come as a surprise, given that most Catholics voted for Obama in the 2008 election and give him positive marks for his performance in office thus far. Obama won 54% of the overall Catholic vote in the November presidential election. Weekly attending Catholics, who in recent elections have tended to support Republican candidates, were evenly divided between Obama (49%) and McCain (50%).

Similarly, the most recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that fully two-thirds of Catholics, including a majority of white, non-Hispanic Catholics (55%), say they approve of Obama’s job performance as president. Overall, Catholics’ views of Obama closely match the views of the population as a whole. Catholics are much more supportive of the president than are white evangelical Protestants (33%) and slightly more supportive than are white mainline Protestants (60%), but they are less enthusiastic about Obama’s performance than are black Protestants (96%) and the religiously unaffiliated (81%).

Figure 3

But the same Pew Research Center poll shows that weekly attending white Catholics are now noticeably more negative toward Obama’s performance compared with earlier this year. In fact, a plurality of this group (45%) now disapproves of the job Obama is doing, more than double the figure in February (20%). And weekly attending white Catholics now express significantly lower approval of Obama’s job performance compared with their less-observant counterparts (43% vs. 63%). In February, 66% of weekly attending white Catholics approved of Obama’s job performance, as did 56% of those who attend less often.

Catholics’ overall approval of Obama is consistent with the fact that many Catholics themselves do not share the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. But though the balance of Catholic opinion in the poll leans in support of both legal abortion and stem cell research, the Catholic community continues to be deeply divided on these issues depending on frequency of Mass attendance.

Figure 5

A Pew Research Center poll from April 2009 finds that nearly half of Catholics (47%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with nearly as many (42%) saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The divide between more-observant and less-observant Catholics over abortion is stark, however. Weekly attending white Catholics overwhelmingly oppose abortion, with 63% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases and only 30% saying it should be legal. Conversely, less-observant white Catholics support legal abortion by a 61% to 29% margin.

A similar pattern is found in Catholics’ views on stem cell research. A plurality of Catholics (49%) favor stem cell research, and other Pew Research Center polls show that most Catholics approve of Obama’s decision to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics (38%) oppose stem cell research, saying it is more important to protect the life of the embryo than to conduct the research. Most white Catholics who attend church regularly oppose stem cell research (55%), while less-observant white Catholics mostly favor stem cell research (54%).

At the same time, the April 2009 poll shows a decrease in support for abortion among both Catholics and the public overall. Similarly, a March Pew Research Center poll shows that Catholic support for stem cell research has fallen below the 50% level for the first time since 2004, and constitutes a slight decline in support since 2007.

Polling data show, however, that abortion is only one of the factors that influences people’s opinions and political decision-making, and it ranks relatively low compared with other issues. In the 2008 election, for instance, Pew Research Center polls show that concerns about the economy were most important in voters’ decision-making, by a wide margin. Concerns about jobs, energy, health care and education also mattered greatly to the overwhelming majority of voters, including Catholics. By comparison, concerns about abortion were much less important, with only 39% of Catholics saying abortion would be a very important issue in their decision about how to vote. Only gay marriage was cited by a smaller number (21%).

Figure 8

This analysis was written by Luis Lugo, Director, Gregory Smith, Research Fellow, and Scott F. Clement, Research Analyst, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

About the Analysis

The questions about the Notre Dame controversy come from a new survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life as part of the Pew Research Center’s late April News Interest Index. The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

Results for the new survey are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of 2,003 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation) between April 23rd and April 27th, 2009. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Most other findings discussed in this analysis about Barack Obama, abortion, stem cell research and issue priorities come from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, and are detailed in individual reports available at

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ News Interest Index, go to For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to

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