August 1, 2012

Catholics Share Bishops’ Concerns about Religious Liberty

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Catholics who are aware of U.S. bishops’ concerns about restrictions on religious liberty generally agree with the bishops’ concerns. Yet the bishops’ protests against government policies they see as restrictive of religious liberty have not drawn much more interest among Catholics than among the general public. And there are no significant differences in the presidential vote preferences between Catholic voters who have heard about the bishops’ protests and those who have not.

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Nearly two-thirds of Catholics (64%) have heard at least a little about the bishops’ protests against a number of government policies, including Obama administration policies requiring religious institutions such as universities and hospitals to provide contraceptive services to their employees. But just 22% of Catholics say they have heard a lot about them. Moreover, only about a third of Catholic churchgoers (32%) say their priest has spoken out on this issue at Mass.

By a 56% to 36% margin, Catholics who are aware of the bishops’ protests about what they believe are infringements of religious liberty say they agree with the bishops’ concerns. Among all Americans who are aware of the protests, there is less support for the bishops’ position: 41% agree with the bishops’ concerns, while 47% disagree.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 28-July 9, 2012, among 2,973 adults, including 619 Catholics, finds that most Catholics express satisfaction with the leadership of the bishops and other church officials. Large majorities are very or somewhat satisfied with the leadership provided by Catholic nuns and sisters in the U.S. (83%), their own parish priests (82%), their diocesan bishop (74%), the pope (74%) and American bishops in general (70%).

The percentage of Catholics saying they are satisfied with the leadership of American bishops has increased sharply since 2002, during the height of the church’s child sex abuse scandal. In June 2002, 51% of Catholics said they were satisfied with the leadership of American bishops; today 70% do so. More Catholics also are satisfied with the leadership of their own bishop than was the case a decade ago (65% in 2002, 74% today).

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The bishops have objected to various actions by state and local governments, including state laws on immigration and municipal rules on adoption services, which they view as limitations on religious liberty. And they have vigorously opposed the Obama administration’s birth control insurance mandate. (For more, see “Public Divided over Birth Control Insurance Mandate,” Feb. 14, 2012.)

However, while most Catholics who are aware of the bishops’ protests agree with their concerns, about half of Catholic voters (51%) say Barack Obama best reflects their views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights; 34% say Mitt Romney best reflects their views on these issues. Obama’s lead on social issues among Catholics is about as wide as his lead among all voters (50% to 36%).

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Currently, Obama and Romney run about even on social issues among white non-Hispanic Catholics (47% Obama vs. 40% Romney). Among white Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, 53% say Romney better reflects their views on abortion, gay rights and other social issues, while 37% say Obama better reflects their views. Opinions are reversed among white Catholics who attend Mass less frequently (54% Obama vs. 31% Romney).

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So far this year, neither Obama nor Romney has established a consistent lead among Catholic voters. Currently, 51% of Catholic registered voters support Obama or lean toward him, while 42% support Romney or lean toward him. Among all registered voters, 50% favor Obama, while 43% back Romney. (For more see “Obama Holds Lead; Romney Trails on Most Issues,” July 12, 2012.)

White non-Hispanic Catholics also are divided: 49% support Romney, while 44% favor Obama. In April, Romney held a 20-point lead among white Catholics (57% to 37%); in that poll, Romney held a comparable advantage among all white voters (54% to 39%). In 2008, McCain won a majority of all white voters, 55% to 43%; he also had a five-point lead among white Catholics (52% to 47%), according to the exit polls.

Catholic Voters and the Bishops’ Protests

Catholic voters who have heard at least a little about the bishops’ protests divide their support between Obama and Romney: 51% back Obama or lean toward him, while 44% support Romney. The race is about the same among Catholic voters who have not heard about the protests (51% Obama vs. 38% Romney).

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Among Catholic voters who have heard about the protests, those who agree with the bishops’ concerns support Romney by a wide margin (60% to 34%). Those who disagree with the bishops’ concerns favor Obama by an even larger margin (78% to 19%).

Bishops’ Concerns Resonate Especially with Observant White Catholics

The bishops’ protests draw far more support from white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass frequently than from those who attend less often.

Fully 68% of white Catholics who attend Mass once a week or more agree with the bishops’ concerns, while just 24% disagree. By contrast, opinion is evenly split among white Catholics who attend Mass less often: 49% of those who have heard about the issue agree with the bishops, while 44% disagree.

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Among other religious groups, a majority of white evangelical Protestants surveyed also agree with the bishops’ concerns (55% of those familiar with the bishops’ protests agree with their concerns, 31% disagree). Black Protestants are more evenly divided (38% agree with the bishops and 47% disagree). Among white mainline Protestants, more disagree than agree with the bishops’ concerns that government policies are restricting religious liberty (37% agree vs. 51% disagree).

Among the religiously unaffiliated, those who disagree with the bishops outnumber those who agree by more than four-to-one (73% who have heard of the bishops’ efforts disagree with their concerns and 17% agree). Fully 84% of atheists and agnostics who are familiar with the topic disagree with the concerns the bishops have raised.

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The bishops’ protests divide the general public – as well as Catholics – along partisan lines. Among the public, Republicans agree with the bishops’ concerns by greater than two-to-one (62% to 23%). Democrats disagree by a comparable margin (62% disagree vs. 28% agree). Four-in-ten independents say they agree with the bishops’ concerns, while 51% disagree.

Within each partisan category, there is more support for the bishops from Catholics than from the general public. Fully 85% of Catholic Republicans who have heard about the bishops’ efforts agree with their concerns, compared with 62% of Republicans overall. Four-in-ten Catholic Democrats (41%) agree with the bishops, compared with 28% of all Democrats. And while 54% of Catholic independents agree with the bishops’ concerns, 40% of all independents do so.

Looked at another way, however, the partisan differences within the Catholic community are as great as they are in the public as a whole. Catholic Republicans are twice as likely as Catholic Democrats to agree with the bishops (85% vs. 41%).

Views of Catholic Leaders

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Roughly eight-in-ten Catholics say they are very or somewhat satisfied with the leadership provided by Catholic nuns and sisters in the U.S. (83%), and 82% express satisfaction with the leadership provided by their parish priests. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics (74%) say they are satisfied with the leadership provided by their bishop, and an identical percentage expresses satisfaction with the pope’s leadership. Seven-in-ten Catholics say they are very (24%) or somewhat satisfied (46%) with the leadership of the American bishops in general.

The percentage of Catholics who say they are satisfied with the leadership of American bishops is significantly higher than it was a decade ago, at the height of the church’s child sex abuse scandal (70% today, 51% in 2002).

While Catholics are generally satisfied with the leadership of their local and national clergy, they express the highest satisfaction with leadership of U.S. nuns and local parish priests. About half say they are very satisfied with the leadership that nuns and priests provide (50% U.S. nuns, 49% their own parish priests). By comparison, 36% of Catholics say they are very satisfied with the leadership of their bishop, 34% with the pope’s leadership and 24% with the leadership of American bishops.

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White Catholics who attend Mass frequently are more satisfied with the leadership provided by the pope, bishops and parish priests than are those who attend less frequently. However, there is no significant difference in views of the leadership provided by nuns: 90% of low attendance white Catholics and 84% of more frequent attenders are satisfied with the leadership of U.S. nuns and sisters.

As might be expected, former Catholics are much less satisfied with Catholic leadership than are those who currently consider themselves to be Catholic. While most Catholics are satisfied with the leadership of the U.S. bishops and the pope, less than half of the former Catholics surveyed express satisfaction with the leadership of the U.S. bishops (31%) and the Pope (38%). The leadership of U.S. nuns and sisters is rated positively by 55% of former Catholics.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted June 28-July 9, 2012, among a national sample of 2,973 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (1,771 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 1,202 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 596 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source and Universal Survey Center under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the March 2011 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2011 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size among respondents with a landline phone.

An additional 511 interviews were conducted June 28-July 10, 2012, with religiously unaffiliated adults by screening landline and cell phone RDD samples (261 interviews) and by recontacting respondents from recent surveys who had identified as religiously unaffiliated (250 interviews). These interviews are used only when reporting on the religiously unaffiliated (including the unaffiliated subgroups – atheist, agnostic, and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular”). For the RDD and cell phone recontact samples, respondents were initially selected in the same way as described above. For the landline recontact sample, interviewers asked to speak with the person based on gender and age who participated in the earlier survey. Once the selected respondents were on the phone, interviewers asked them a few questions and then asked their religious affiliation; those who are religiously unaffiliated continued with the remainder of the interview.

The weighting procedure for the additional interviews with religiously unaffiliated respondents used an iterative technique that included all of the parameters described above. In addition, the weighting accounted for the oversampling of unaffiliated respondents in the screened and callback samples, the type of unaffiliated respondent (atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”), as well as gender, age, region and the 2012 presidential vote preference among the unaffiliated. The parameters for the type of unaffiliated respondent and for gender, age and region among the unaffiliated are based on combined data from Pew Research Center surveys conducted from July 2011-June 2012.  The parameter for the 2012 vote preference is based on the vote preferences of unaffiliated respondents in the main sample.

Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

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Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

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.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky