Survey Finds Mass Attendance Affects U.S. Catholics' Views

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Mass attendance is closely tied to whether Catholics are in accord with Church teaching, a poll conducted by Zogby International has found.

Though the survey shows high numbers of Catholics in the United States approve of the job Pope John Paul II is doing and feel that their identity as Catholics is important to them, there are significant numbers disagreeing on matters such as contraception and women's ordination. And the frequency of Mass attendance seems to make a major difference in such attitudes.

For example, although 68% of the Catholics surveyed agreed that abortion is morally wrong under virtually all circumstances, 91% of daily Mass-goers and 77% of those who go weekly agreed. Among Catholics who go to Mass once a month, agreement dropped to 58%.

The survey was commissioned by LeMoyne College in this upstate New York city and was the first step in a long-term study of contemporary Catholic trends. Two professors at the Jesuit college, William Barnett, of the religious studies department, and Robert Kelly, of the sociology and anthropology department, aim to take two polls annually for the next two years to look at beliefs, practices and attitudes toward Church governance and public policy issues.

Zogby queried 1,508 Catholics nationwide between Oct. 25 and Nov. 1. The poll's margin of error is almost 3%. Those polled were people who had identified themselves as Catholic on past Zogby surveys.

One of its most dramatic findings is that 71.5% of American Catholics consider it very important to stand up for and live according to their Catholic values in their daily life; 3.2% did not consider this important.

Almost 90% of respondents say that Pope John Paul II is doing a good job leading the Church, while 85% believe the U.S. bishops are doing a good job leading the Church in the United States.

Nearly 89% said their Catholic identity is important to them, yet that was outdone by more than 97% who felt that American identity is important. More than 77% feel “somewhat” or “very” committed to their parishes, and two-thirds feel satisfied with how their parishes meet their needs. Two-thirds also are satisfied with the way the liturgy is conducted.

In matters of faith, 97% believe that God has the power to answer all prayers; 94% believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, and 92% agree that the Bible is the inspired word of God.


But there are troubling figures, too, with significant percentages disagreeing with Church teaching on various points of sexual morality and important disciplines such as a celibate clergy. Sixty-one percent disagree with the Church's teaching that contraception is morally wrong; 50%, that invitro fertilization is wrong; 28%, that sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong; 34%, that homosexual behavior is against the natural law. Almost 53% disagree that only men can be ordained priests; 33.5% disagree that the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals.

And, while almost 54% said they attend Mass at least once a week, with 7.6% attending daily, a solid 46.2% appear not to keep the Sunday obligation, with 5.3% saying they never attend Mass. More than 30% never go to confession, but 8.2% say they go weekly and 12.5% say they go monthly.

The Church requires that Catholics confess mortal sins sacramentally at least once a year. Failure to attend Sunday Mass is a mortal sin.

But when responses are broken down according to frequency of Mass attendance, a different picture emerges.

Asked about the statement, “artificial birth control is morally wrong,” 36% of the total said they agree, while 61% said they disdisagree. Among those who attend Mass every day, 74% agreed with the statement. But 54% of weekly Mass-goers disagreed.

Asked whether they agree or disagree that stem-cell research involving the destruction of human embryos is morally wrong, 61% of the total surveyed said they agree either “strongly” or “somewhat.” But 51% of those who said they seldom attend Mass disagreed with the statement. Of those who said they never go to Mass, 55% disagreed with the Church teaching.

Sixty-six percent agreed that euthanasia is morally wrong. Eighty-eight percent of those who attend daily Mass agreed with the statement, while half of those who seldom or never go to Mass agreed.

A First Picture

Barnett and Kelly pointed out that the poll was important for them as an initial “getting to know you” picture of Catholics in America and that many of the results would have to be further investigated in future surveys and through cross-analysis.

Also, the timing of the survey may have influenced many of the results. While 24% say they have increased Mass attendance and confession in direct response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Barnett spoke of the need to track attitudes and see if those practices will hold up over time.

But Kelly was encouraged by what he saw as “large numbers coming home” in response to the terrorism.

“There is some evidence that folks who came back were more likely to have some distance from the Church,” he said. He did point out, however, that the Church was not the only institution that got a “bump” after the attacks. There is generally more confidence in government as well.

Skeptical About Poll

Paul Sullins, professor of sociology at Georgetown who has conducted similar surveys, said he was skeptical about the LeMoyne findings. Mass attendance is much higher than what other surveys have found, particularly the General Social Survey, which he called the “gold standard.” That poll, which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found last year that 29.6% attend Mass at least once a week.

The disparity may be explained by the fact that Zogby did not use a random sample, Sullins said.

Kelly, however, believes the survey accurately shows a vibrant Church made up of “people that are engaged.”

“A number of findings indicate that people feel a real presence of God in their lives,” he said.

As for the very high approval rating of Pope John Paul, one New York man found it easy to understand.

“It's fascinating to introduce people to the thought of the Pope,” said Peter McFadden, who moderates a group that discusses the book Love and Responsibility. He said that many people have an image of the Pope as a “good man” but have not probed his philosophy. “When they do, the response is joy.”