September 2, 2015

U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families

Chapter 2: Participation in Catholic Rites and Observances

About four-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass weekly. Few cultural Catholics (4%) say the same, but nearly half report attending Mass at least occasionally. Meanwhile, a strong majority of ex-Catholics (82%) say they never attend Mass at a Catholic church.

A similar pattern is seen on some other measures of observance of Catholic rituals, such as saying it would be important to receive the anointing of the sick if they were seriously ill. Many cultural Catholics place importance on this ritual, but relatively few ex-Catholics do the same.

This chapter looks at the participation of Catholics, cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics in a variety of Catholic rites and observances. It also examines differences among Catholic demographic groups on these measures and others, including style of prayer and whether a sense of familial obligation ever compels them to partake in Catholic activities.

Most questions in this chapter were asked only of Catholics and those with a connection to Catholicism; for these questions, comparisons to other religious groups and the U.S. general public are not available.

Mass Attendance and Receiving Communion

Nearly Half of Cultural Catholics Say They Attend Mass at Least OccasionallyAbout four-in-ten U.S. Catholics (39%) say they attend religious services at least once a week, and an additional 45% say they do so once or twice a month or a few times a year. Roughly one-in-eight Catholics say they attend religious services less than once a year, and 5% say they never attend Mass.6

About half of cultural Catholics say they attend Mass at least once in a while, including 4% who say they attend weekly, 28% who attend once or twice a month or a few times a year and 15% who say they attend less often.

In contrast with cultural Catholics, the vast majority of ex-Catholics (82%) say they never attend Mass.

Among Catholics, a somewhat larger share of women than men report attending Mass on a weekly basis (43% vs 35%). And Catholics ages 65 and older are much more likely to say they attend weekly (49%) than Catholics under the age of 30 (30%).

Mass Attendance Among CatholicsMarital status also is associated with frequency of Mass attendance. Among married Catholics, 44% say they attend weekly or more, compared with 34% of Catholics who are not currently married. And Catholics who report that they are currently living with a partner outside of marriage or who have been divorced and remarried without having sought an annulment from the Catholic Church are less likely than other Catholics to say they attend Mass on a weekly basis (25%, compared with 41% of all other Catholics).

Most Catholics Regularly Receive Communion When They Attend MassMost Catholics say they receive Holy Communion every time (43%) or most times (13%) they attend Mass. About one-in-five cultural Catholics say they receive Communion on most (3%) or all (15%) occasions they attend Mass.7

Among Catholics, regular taking of Communion is more common among whites than Hispanics. Fully 56% of white Catholics say they receive the Eucharist every time they attend Mass, and an additional 16% say they receive the sacrament most of the time. By contrast, among Hispanic Catholics (who attend weekly Mass at about the same rate as white non-Hispanic Catholics), most say they take Communion only some of the time they attend Mass (35%) or that they never receive the sacrament (27%).

White Catholics More Likely Than Hispanics to Regularly Receive Communion

The survey also shows that Catholics who are ineligible for Communion in the eyes of the church because they are currently cohabiting or have gotten divorced and remarried without having sought an annulment do, in fact, receive Communion less often than other Catholics.8 Still, most Catholics in these situations say they do receive Communion at least some of the time they attend church, including 34% who say they receive Communion every time they go to Mass, 7% who say they accept the sacrament most of the time and 23% who take Communion some of the time.9

Two-thirds of Catholic college graduates say they receive Communion every time they attend Mass. By contrast, among Catholics with less education, only about one-third receive the Eucharist every time they are at Mass (35%).

Confession, Lenten Observances and Anointing of the Sick

Four-in-Ten Catholics Say They Go to Confession at Least Once a YearAbout four-in-ten Catholics (43%) say they go to confession at least once a year, including 7% who report going monthly, 14% who say they go several times a year and 21% who say they go once a year. By comparison, relatively few cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics receive the sacrament of reconciliation with any regularity.

Lenten Observance, Anointing of the SickHowever, many cultural Catholics do observe Lent (the period from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter). Fully one-third of cultural Catholics say they gave something up or did something extra in observance of Lent this year.10 And about four-in-ten cultural Catholics say it would be important to them to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from a Catholic priest if they were seriously ill.

Confession, Anointing of the Sick, Lenten Observance Among CatholicsTo be sure, those who identify as Catholics by religion are far more likely than cultural Catholics to observe Lent and to say they would want receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. But the differences between cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics on these questions are particularly striking. Whereas sizable numbers of cultural Catholics have retained these connections to the church, relatively few ex-Catholics have done the same.

The survey shows that among Catholics, there are some differences between demographic groups on these measures of participation and observance. Catholic women are somewhat more likely than Catholic men to say they would want the anointing of the sick, while younger Catholics are less likely than their elders to say the same. More whites than Latinos say they gave something up or did something extra in observance of Lent this year.

On the whole, the differences between demographic subgroups of Catholics are relatively modest on these questions. But Catholics who attend Mass regularly are, not surprisingly, far more likely than less-frequent attenders to say they go to confession at least once a year, participate in Lenten observances and would want to receive the anointing of the sick.

Prayers of the Faithful

Prayer: Memorized Devotions or Personal Conversations?Nearly all Catholics (97%) say they pray at least occasionally. When asked how they pray, about half of Catholics say they use mainly memorized prayers like the Hail Mary and Our Father (21%) or a combination of memorized prayers and personal conversations with God (31%). More than four-in-ten Catholics (44%) say their prayers consist mainly of personal conversations with God.

Style of Prayer Among CatholicsBy comparison, cultural Catholics and ex-Catholics rely more heavily on informal prayers. About two-thirds of cultural Catholics (65%) say their prayers consist mainly of personal conversations with God, and 62% of ex-Catholics say the same. Still, a sizable minority of cultural Catholics say they rely mainly (11%) or partly (14%) on memorized prayers when they pray. Roughly one-in-ten ex-Catholics (9%), by contrast, say they rely on memorized prayers at all; about a quarter of ex-Catholics (27%) say they never pray.

The data also show that Catholics are far more likely than people from other religious traditions to use memorized prayers. About eight-in-ten Protestants (82%) say they rely mainly on personal conversations with God, while most religiously unaffiliated people either use mainly personal conversations with the deity (47%) or do not pray at all (42%).
Among Catholics, more men than women rely mainly on memorized prayers, while more women than men rely on a combination of memorized prayers and personal conversations with God. Compared with older Catholics, more young Catholic adults mainly pray via personal conversations with the divine. Hispanic Catholics are more likely than white Catholics to say they mainly pray through memorized devotions, while more whites than Hispanics say they mainly pray through personal conversations with God.

Participating in Catholic Activities Out of a Sense of Familial Obligation

Familial Obligations to Participate in Catholic ActivitiesMore than half of Catholics (56%) say they sometimes participate in Catholic activities, even if they do not personally believe in the efficacy of those activities, because it is important to their family or close friends. An even higher share of cultural Catholics (63%) say they sometimes feel they have to do this.

Many Catholics Say They Sometimes Participate in Catholic Activities to Please Family or FriendsFewer ex-Catholics say they sometimes participate in Catholic activities out of a sense of obligation to family or friends. But even among this group, 46% say they sometimes feel obligated to do so.

The survey did not specify which kinds of Catholic activities respondents may participate in out of a sense of obligation to friends or family. Such activities could include going to Mass or attending baptisms, weddings, funerals, holiday observances or other events.

The survey shows that among Catholics, participating in religious activities to please family or friends is common across a variety of demographic groups. More than half of Catholic men and women say they do this, as do majorities in most age groups. About half or more of white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics say they sometimes participate in Catholic activities out of a sense of obligation to others. Even among Catholics who attend Mass most often, who are presumably among those most likely to believe in the efficacy of participating in Catholic activities, 56% say they sometimes do this out of a sense of obligation to others.

  1. Recent research shows that surveys that ask respondents directly about how often they attend religious services obtain higher estimates of rates of weekly attendance as compared with other, more indirect methods of data collection (such as asking respondents to keep a diary of how they spend their days, without specific reference to attendance at worship services). When prompted directly by a survey question to report how often they attend religious services, respondents who indicate they attend every week seem to be indicating that they are the kind of person who attends religious services regularly, not necessarily that they literally never miss a week of church. See, for example, Brenner, Philip S. 2011. “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.” Public Opinion Quarterly. In addition to the over-reporting of church attendance arising from asking respondents directly about how often they attend religious services, readers should bear in mind that telephone opinion surveys can produce overestimates of religious attendance due to high rates of nonresponse. See, for example, Pew Research Center’s 2012 report “Assessing the Representativeness of Public Opinion Surveys.” See also Pew Research Center’s July 21, 2015, Fact Tank post “The Challenges of Polling When Fewer People Are Available to be Polled.”
  2. The survey did not ask respondents why they do not receive Communion.
  3. The survey’s questions cannot provide a definitive account of who is eligible or ineligible for Communion. For example, a romantic couple living together outside of marriage may be living “as brother and sister” and abstaining from sexual activity, which would not preclude them from receiving Communion. And someone who is divorced and remarried would not need to seek an annulment in order to be eligible for Communion if their former spouse has died. Still, the survey’s estimate of the share of Catholics who are cohabiting or remarried without an annulment provides a rough sense of how many Catholics may be ineligible for Communion for one of these reasons. For more information on the share of Catholics who are ineligible for Communion because they are cohabiting or have gotten remarried without an annulment, see discussion on page 60.
  4. Hispanic Catholics are more likely than white Catholics to be ineligible for Communion in the eyes of the church because of their current living arrangements; about one-in-five Hispanic Catholics (22%) are currently cohabiting or have gotten divorced and remarried without an annulment, compared with 11% of white Catholics. However, even among Catholics who are not cohabiting or remarried without an annulment, Hispanics are far less likely than whites to say they regularly receive Communion when they attend Mass.
  5. As noted in footnote 4, roughly half of cultural Catholics are Protestants. Because Protestant groups also observe Lent, cultural Catholics’ participation in Lent might reflect their Protestant faith as much as any connection to Catholicism.