WASHINGTON — The U.S. Catholic bishops are trying to bring their flocks fully into the pro-life fold, but another poll confirms that the faithful are not even halfway there.
However, Catholic and pro-life leaders believe the Church has an opportunity to change these trends — if only the lay faithful will allow it.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll reports 55% of self-identified white Catholics believe abortion should be “legal in most or all cases.” Just 29% of Catholics said abortion should be “illegal in most cases,” and 13% said abortion should be “illegal in all cases.”
However, the poll does not give the complete picture of Catholics in the United States: It does not reflect the views of 39% of Catholics who identify as Hispanic, nor does it make distinctions between Catholics who go or do not go to Sunday Mass regularly. It does reflect the findings of other polls: Self-identified Catholics are conflicted and confused on abortion.
A Pew Research Center survey taken on the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions showed 63% of white Catholics believed the Supreme Court decisions should stand. Yet 55% said abortion is morally wrong.
“We often see Catholic statistics mirroring the general public,” said Father Frank Pavone, director of the pro-life ministry Priests for Life. He pointed out other polls show the Catholic in the pew on Sunday is more pro-life than the unchurched Catholic.
A 2009 Gallup poll showed that only 24% of Catholics who attend church regularly believe abortion is “morally acceptable,” whereas 52% of Catholics who go to church irregularly find abortion morally acceptable.
A Pastoral Challenge
Father Pavone said that, while Catholics in the pew are getting the pro-life message, surveys like the Washington Post/ABC poll show Catholic priests have “a pastoral challenge” of getting the pew-sitting Catholics to evangelize the Catholics who are not showing up on Sunday.
“We [priests] are preaching to the people not because they need to be reminded — they do — but we’re equipping them to change the rest of society,” said Father Pavone.
Making parishes visible signs of pro-life witness is exactly the job the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wants the faithful in the pews engaged in.
“We need to do a lot more basic education — even for churchgoing Catholics," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director for the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-life Activities. Although pew-sitting Catholics poll lower on abortion, 53% of them told Gallup in 2009 that embryonic stem-cell research and premarital sex were also “morally acceptable”; and 44% said the same for homosexual relations.
Doerflinger said the USCCB wants parishes to see themselves as “opportunities for adult [pro-life] education.” He said an added challenge is getting Catholics to realize they have to translate their moral convictions about right and wrong into law. The USCCB’s vision sees a respect-life director in each parish, who can coordinate the parish’s pro-life education and activity. The bishops’ conference also provides a respect-life program with resources printed in both English and Spanish for parishes.
“We need to make the parish an active participant in helping women to have more options than abortion,” he said.
Catholic Abortions Affect Catholic Views
Olivia Gans, a Catholic post-abortive mother and president of the Virginia Society of Human Life (VSHL), agreed with Doerflinger’s assessment. She said the Catholic community must talk about abortion and make it known that Catholic women — and all women — can find help and hope in the midst of a crisis pregnancy or after abortion.
But Catholics cannot afford to think abortion is a “unique event happening to the rare woman.”
“It’s happening consistently through all our families and all our communities, regardless of religious background or race,” Gans said.
If current trends continue, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 10% of women of reproductive age will have an abortion by age 20; 25% will have an abortion by age 30 and 35% of women will have had an abortion by age 45.
Self-identified Catholic women account for nearly a quarter of the United States’ annual 1.3 million abortions. A study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology showed Catholic women age 15-44 had 24.8% of abortions in 2008 and aborted their unborn children at a rate of 22.3 abortions per 1,000 women.
Gans said a woman’s decision to surgically or chemically end the life of her child can harden her attitude against the Church’s pro-life teaching and affect those who want to support her. “In abortion, you need to make sense of it,” she said. The post-abortive mother, she said, goes through a process of “denial and rationalization” that for some women means “encouraging others to follow the same path.” It’s a process that goes on only “until your heart breaks” and begins to confront the pain of her own post-abortion stress syndrome.
Father Pavone said the Church has an opportunity to change hearts by making parishes witnesses of “the Divine Mercy.”
“When the parish becomes a place where women who’ve had abortions know they can come and find help,” he said, “that is really going to change attitudes in the right direction.”
Saving the Catholic College Woman
College-age women are particularly vulnerable to crisis pregnancies and abortions. Guttmacher reports that women in their 20s account for more than half of all abortions, and women 20-24 account for 33%.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America (SFLA), said Catholic colleges and universities have to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: “We as a Church body are aborting at just the same rate as non-Christian women.”
Hawkins said Christian pro-life youth are interested in providing “tangible support services” to students in crisis pregnancies. But giving women the support they need also means making universities and colleges more friendly to pregnant women, particularly Catholic and Christian campuses.
SFLA has a Pregnant on Campus Program that works with administrators to give pregnant women flexible class schedules, family housing and baby-changing stations in bathrooms. SFLA is developing a scholarship program to help women stay in school and has been working to change policies so that pregnant students are not forced (overtly or covertly) to leave school.
Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina has been a leader in providing tangible support for students in crisis pregnancies, with housing on its campus specifically designed for the needs of pregnant students.
Hawkins said that some Catholic and Christian administrators objected to providing these services over concerns that they will be encouraging sex and pregnancy.
But this view was “naive,” Hawkins said. Besides pregnancy being a very difficult condition, she pointed out that female students have “options” other than carrying their babies to term. A Students for Life study showed 79% of Planned Parenthood facilities are set up within five miles of a college or university campus.
Consequently, Christian and Catholic campuses need to offer alternatives.
“It’s never easy to be a pregnant single mom, especially a student,” Hawkins said. “But we know the best single way for a mom and her child to escape poverty is her having a college degree. We don’t want her to not finish it because she’s pregnant.”
Hispanics: the Untapped Strength of the Church
As a fast-growing minority population, Hispanic Americans number more than 50 million of the population and have the potential to make a decisive impact on both U.S. and Church culture. Hispanics count for 39% of the U.S. Catholic population and 54% of Catholics over age 30, according to data from the USCCB.
But Hispanics’ traditional life and family culture faces challenges from both cultural assimilation and deliberate targeting by Planned Parenthood’s abortion providers, said Aurora Tinajero, director of Spanish Ministry for the Pro-Life Committee of the Diocese of Dallas. She said the Church needs more Spanish-language media to get its message to Hispanics and balance out the negative views and outreach efforts from secular outlets like Telemundo and Planned Parenthood.
Tinajero, however, said the Church in the United States is making strides to educate and mobilize the Hispanic faithful. She is organizing the third Hispanic Congress of the Americas for Respect Life and Evangelization and expects 2,000 people to attend.
She said, “The Church in the United States is counting on [Hispanics] not only to bring us their beautiful culture and tradition, but also to bring the people of the United States back to those traditions: a culture of life, family and marriage.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.