Roughly nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they believe in the concept of sin – that there are actions or deeds that can be offensive to God. But there is less unanimity among Catholics about which specific actions or behaviors constitute a sin. For example, while most Catholics say abortion is sinful, they are divided as to whether homosexual behavior is a sin. They also are divided on the question of whether buying luxury goods without giving to the poor constitutes a sin.
And when asked about some behaviors that have long been condemned by the Catholic Church as sinful, Catholics do not always agree with the church. For example, there are more Catholics who say it is not sinful to get remarried after a divorce without first obtaining an annulment (49%) than say it is sinful (35%). In addition, more than half of Catholics say living with a romantic partner outside of marriage is not sinful. And fully two-thirds of Catholics say it is not a sin to use contraceptives.
This chapter explores attitudes about sin in more detail, focusing on beliefs about the very concept of sin as well as on the sinfulness of specific sexual and reproductive behaviors, the sinfulness of various marital and living arrangements and what might be thought of as sins of excess.
Belief in the Concept of Sin
Compared with Catholics, smaller majorities of cultural Catholics (81%) and ex-Catholics (68%) believe in sin, with opinions depending in large part on the current religious identity of respondents. Cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics who now identify with Protestantism overwhelmingly believe in the concept of sin at rates similar to Catholics and U.S. Protestants overall. But cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics who now say they are religiously unaffiliated are considerably less likely than those who are now Protestant to believe in the concept of sin.
Looking at the public as a whole, the survey shows that belief in sin is somewhat less common among adults under the age of 30 than among older adults. Whites are somewhat less likely to express belief in sin than blacks and Hispanics, though large majorities in all three racial and ethnic groups believe some actions are offensive to God.
Among Catholics, there are only a few modest differences between subgroups when it comes to belief in the concept of sin. Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis are somewhat more likely to believe in sin than are Catholics who attend Mass less often. And Catholic Republicans believe in sin at slightly higher rates than Catholic Democrats and independents. Still, large majorities of Catholics in all of these subgroups say they believe in the concept of sin.
Views on Which Behaviors Qualify as Sins
Catholics are more divided on whether it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior; 44% say it is, while 39% say it is not. Catholics also are divided on whether it is a sin to buy luxury goods without also giving to the poor; 41% consider this behavior sinful, while 42% do not.
Only about a fifth of Catholics say it is a sin to get a divorce (21%), about the same as the public as a whole (19%). And roughly half of Catholics say it is not a sin to remarry after a divorce without first obtaining an annulment.
A majority of Catholics (54%) also say living with a romantic partner outside of marriage is not sinful. On this question, Catholics are even more accepting of cohabitation than the general public. And Catholics are as likely as the public as a whole to say using contraceptives is not a sin, with fully two-thirds of Catholics expressing this opinion.
Sinfulness of Abortion, Homosexuality, Contraception
Catholics are about as likely as Protestants to say having an abortion is a sin (57% vs. 60%), but they are less likely than Protestants to say engaging in homosexual behavior is sinful (44% vs. 62%). And while relatively few Catholics or Protestants say using artificial means of birth control is a sin, Catholics are more inclined than Protestants to express this view (17% vs. 10%).
Compared with Catholics and Protestants, the religiously unaffiliated are much less likely to believe in the concept of sin. Nevertheless, roughly a fifth of the unaffiliated say having an abortion and engaging in homosexual behavior are sinful (22% and 18%, respectively), and only 7% find the use of contraceptives sinful.
Looking at the public as a whole, the study finds that young people are less likely than older adults to say that homosexual behavior is sinful. Roughly a third of Americans under age 30 (35%) say engaging in homosexual behavior is sinful, compared with about half of those ages 30 and older.
The age differences in views toward homosexual behavior also are seen among Catholics. About half of Catholic adults under age 30 (51%) say engaging in homosexual behavior is not sinful. By comparison, roughly four-in-ten or fewer Catholics in the older age categories say homosexuality is not sinful.
These age differences are not seen, however, in Catholics’ attitudes about abortion. In fact, Catholics under age 50 are slightly more likely than older Catholics to say that having an abortion is a sin.
As is the case among the public as a whole, Catholic Republicans are much more inclined than Catholic Democrats to say abortion (66% vs. 48%) and homosexual behavior (51% vs. 34%) are sinful. There is little partisan division, however, in views toward contraception; about two-thirds of Catholic Republicans, Democrats and independents say using contraceptives is not a sin.
Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week are consistently more likely than those who attend Mass less often to agree with church teachings about the sinfulness of abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics who attend Mass weekly (73%) say abortion is sinful, compared with 47% of those who attend less often. And about six-in-ten weekly Mass-attending Catholics say that engaging in homosexual behavior is sinful (59%), compared with 35% of Catholics who attend Mass less regularly.
On the question of artificial means of contraception, however, even Catholics who regularly attend Mass disagree with church teaching. Nearly six-in-ten Catholics who attend Mass weekly (57%) say using contraceptives is not a sin, almost twice the share who say it is sinful (31%).
Sinfulness of Cohabitation and Divorce
A third of Catholics (and 36% of the public as a whole) say it is a sin to live with a romantic partner without getting married. But more than half of Catholics (54%) say this living arrangement is not sinful. By comparison, about half of Protestants (52%) say cohabitation is sinful, while more than a third (36%) say it is not.
Among the U.S. population as a whole, young adults are especially accepting of cohabitation. Only about a quarter of adults under age 30 (27%) say living with a partner outside of marriage is sinful, compared with roughly four-in-ten older adults.
Roughly a fifth of Catholics (21%) say getting a divorce is a sin, but a somewhat larger share express misgivings about getting remarried after divorce without first obtaining an annulment. Roughly a third of all Catholics (35%) say remarrying without an annulment is sinful. Ex-Catholics are less likely than Catholics to view remarriage without annulment as sinful, and they are somewhat less likely than Catholics to see divorce as a sin.
Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly are more likely than those who attend less often to say divorce is a sin. But even among frequent Mass attenders, about six-in-ten do not think it is sinful to get a divorce.
Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week are divided over the sinfulness of cohabitation (46% say it is sinful, 45% say it is not) and remarrying without an annulment (46% vs. 42%). By contrast, among Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week, half or more say cohabitation and remarriage without an annulment are not sinful (59% and 54%, respectively).
Catholic adults under the age of 30 express somewhat greater reservations about divorce than do older Catholics. Roughly a third of those under age 30 (34%) say they believe getting a divorce is a sin, compared with 18% of those ages 50 and older.
The survey finds that Catholics’ own marital history has only a minimal bearing on their attitudes about these issues. Among Catholics who have lived with a partner, 26% say cohabitation is sinful, only slightly lower than the share of Catholics overall who say this (33%). About one-in-five Catholics who have ever been divorced (19%) say divorce is sinful, very similar to the share of all Catholics who say this (21%). And among Catholics who have been divorced and are now remarried (including some who say they sought an annulment), 27% say remarrying without an annulment is a sin, which is not significantly lower than the share of all Catholics who say this (35%).
Sins of Excess
Since becoming pope, Francis has continually exhorted Catholics and others to be attentive to the impact their lifestyles have on the poor, the marginalized and the environment. The survey included several questions designed to gauge whether Catholics and those who feel connected to the faith believe that failing to live up to these standards constitutes sinful behavior.
Catholics are divided as to whether it is sinful to spend money on luxuries without also giving to the poor; 41% say this is a sin, while 42% say it is not. Catholics’ views on this question closely mirror those of Protestants.
Fewer Catholics (23%) say it is sinful to use energy such as electricity and gasoline without considering their impact on the environment, while 61% say this is not a sin. An even smaller number of Catholics (12%) say it is sinful to live in a house that is much larger than needed, or that drinking alcohol is a sin (12%).
Hispanic Catholics express much more concern about these “sins of excess” than do white Catholics. Nearly one-in-five Hispanic Catholics (18%) say it is a sin to live in a house much larger than needed, about twice the rate seen among white Catholics (8%). Roughly a third of Hispanic Catholics say it is a sin to use energy without considering the environment, compared with 18% of white Catholics. And about half of Hispanic Catholics (55%) say it is sinful to spend money on luxuries without also giving to the poor, compared with 34% of white Catholics.