Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Unmentionables?: Faith and Sex, Principle and Practice

If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – Pope Francis

Many reporters seem to be interpreting the Pope’s recent comment above as some dramatic shift in the Catholic Church. Yet, a similarly “radical” message can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (...doctrine is rarely changed at 30,000 feet during a media interview!). A gay priest who has honored commitments to be celibate and chaste has done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Church. The Catechism generally instructs that Catholics who are sexually attracted towards persons of the same sex “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” For the Church, there is in no sin in sexual orientation.

Other than “lust” (“disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure”), all sins related to sex outlined by the Catholic Church involve actions rather than matters of the mind alone. Survey data indicate that Catholics of all orientations are often challenged by the Church’s teachings on these matters. For example, the Church instructs that sex should only be something that a husband and wife share, while being open to the children that may result from this. Consensual sex between adults under any other circumstances is considered a sin for those involved. This remarkably simple teaching exists in a complex social world. As a standard, it is something that many Catholics fail to live up to (some later address this through the Sacrament of Reconciliation). The media likes to portray the Church as only a place of judgment in these matters, often ignoring its extraordinary capacity to forgive and welcome as well.

Perhaps one of the starkest indicators of many Catholic’s falling short of the Church’s teachings on sexuality is shown in the figure below from the General Social Survey (1,974 total interviews of which 477 were with self-identified as Catholics, resulting in a margin of error of ±4.5 percentage points for this sub-group). In relation to Church teachings, unless one is widowed and remarried or had a marriage annulled and remarried, Catholics should have one sexual partner their whole life or none. On average, Catholics say they have had about six sexual partners since the age of 18 (men report more partners than women, for more about this go here).

About 1 in 20 actually have exactly six partners. The average is a reflection of a split distribution where 13% of adult Catholics have had no sexual partners and 14% have had 10 or more, as shown in the figure below. A quarter say they have had one sexual partner and 12% report two partners. Yet fully, half of adult Catholics say they have had three or more sexual partners in their life.

Of course there is more to the story than numbers of partners. If you’ve had only one sexual partner but you are not married you’ve not observed Church teachings. Only 14% of adult Catholics are married and have had one sex partner. Additionally, 2% are currently widowed and report one sex partner. Another 2% are separated or divorced and have had only one sex partner (civil divorce is not a sin nor is cohabitation between a unmarried couple abstaining from sex). Some portion of the 8% who are married with two partners may have been previously widowed or had an annulment. Thus, at the most, one would estimate that maybe 39% of adult Catholics (including those with no sex partners) have and continue to observe the Church’s teachings on marriage and sex. Most have not always done so (note that some portion of those married with two partners were not widowed nor had an annulment).

There is an attitudinal parallel to the number of sexual partners results noted above. In conflict with Church teachings, six in ten Catholics say they feel that it is “not wrong at all” for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage. At the same time, the second figure shows that it is still the case that more than eight in ten Catholics believe that once one is married, sex with someone other than your spouse is “always wrong.”

The widespread belief that cheating on a spouse is always wrong doesn’t prevent some Catholics from doing this. Eight percent of sexually-active Catholic adults say they have cheated on their spouse (12 percent of Catholics who have ever been married).

Catholics are more conflicted on sexual relations between people of the same sex. Half say this is “not wrong at all” and 37% say it is “always wrong.

The GSS also asks about the sex of a respondent’s sexual partners. Some 3.7% of adult Catholics report a sex partner at some point in their life who was of the same sex. This is equivalent to about 2.2 million adults. Fewer, 2.3% of self-identified Catholics, or about 1.4 million adults, self-identifies as gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual in the GSS (aggregated from 2008, 2010, and 2012 to maximize the number of respondents). Although 34% of gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual Catholics say they were raised Catholic, only 19% self-identify as Catholic as adults.

Is it possible that Catholics who attend Mass weekly struggle less with the Church’s teachings on sex? If one aggregates the GSS data from 2008 to 2012 (to provide a sufficient sub-group N for analysis), only 38% of Catholic men who attend church every week or more often have either one sex partner or none (49% have two or fewer partners). Some 65% of Catholic women who attend church weekly have had one sex partner or none (80% have two or fewer partners). The struggles among weekly Mass attenders appear to be rarer, especially among women, but still many in the pews have fallen astray of the Church’s principles in their life practice at some point.

The Church is not going to change its teachings to condone sex outside of marriage (…no matter what any American polling finds or how many times a jounralist scolds it for being “out of touch”). But the Church may choose to more intentionally emphasize that judgment is not all it has to offer to those who struggle to live up to the Church’s principles at all times in their life. Forgiveness and compassion are other hallmarks of the faith. What the media noticed in Pope Francis’ comments on that plane from Brazil has always been a part of the Catholic Church; just not often acknowledged by many.


When Surveys Lead to Sins: An Unholy Trinity

The ethics of modern social science require that we "do no harm." But I have a confession to make. I have done some harm and I can prove it.

About five years ago CARA began to transition from random digit dial telephone polls to self-administered surveys taken with probability-based samples (households randomly selected by telephone or mail) where respondents take their surveys on a screen (i.e., either on a computer, tablet, or television). In 2005, we ended up doing a telephone poll and a self-administered poll just weeks apart. Although the samples for both surveys were demographically very similar some of the content questions produced shockingly different outcomes. It was then that I realized in my first few years here conducting the CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) that I had been encouraging a bit of lies (i.e., sin). This post is an atonement of sorts.

How many U.S. adult Catholics go to Mass each week? If you look around the survey research world you'll find estimates in the 35% to 45% range. Survey researchers and the Church have known for quite some time that these polls are off the mark to say the least. There are other methods of estimating Mass attendance from headcounts to time diaries that produce more accurate results which come in at the mid-20% range. In CARA's 2005 polls we saw this disparity:

If we took the telephone results literally we'd estimate a third of Catholics go to Mass every week. But realistically, the self-administered survey was much closer to the mark of a headcount or time-diary study at 23%. At the other end of the spectrum only 19% said they rarely or never attended Mass compared to 35% in the self-administered survey. What was going on? Social desirability bias. When taking a survey over the phone one is most often speaking to another human being. Even though the respondent knows this will be a short conversation, their responses are confidential or anonymous, and that they will never speak to this person again, some still feel shame in answering honestly. Instead they "over-report" their attendance. This is good and bad. The fact that they feel shame shows the cultural norm of attending church is still alive and well among Catholics but it also leads to dishonesty which results in a distorted view of religious practice. What is different in the self-administered survey? The respondent is not interacting with a human being. They feel more comfortable reporting their actual behavior to a computer.

We've written about this issue before but recently going through the CARA archives I was able to identify the types of religious practice questions that most often lead to over-reporting in telephone interviews. The winner of the "biggest bias" award goes to financial giving to one's parish. Three-fourths of Catholics in a telephone poll say they regularly give to their parish's weekly offertory collection. Yet only half say they do when the interviewer is removed and the survey is self-administered. This question parallels the same type of over-reporting social scientists see in national surveys that ask about giving to charity, volunteering, or voting.

Of course once one lies to a survey interviewer they may be inclined to make a future visit to their parish for the Sacrament of Reconciliation... especially since they probably lied about how often they go to confession! As shown below, 12% of adult Catholics say they go to confession at least once a month when interviewed by telephone. This falls to 2% when the survey is self-administered (I like to claim that CARA has reduced the necessity for some Catholics to go to confession by adopting these newer, more accurate methods).

These three types of questions make up a trinity of sorts. Catholics consistently over-report the frequency of going to Mass, confession, and giving to their parish when speaking to a human being. There is little evidence of social desirability bias affecting responses to most other questions. This is telling in that this trinity is what many Catholics feel guilt and embarrassment about not doing.

For example, Catholics apparently do not feel the same guilt about not giving to their annual diocesan appeal. As shown below, 29% said they did so in the 2005 telephone poll compared to 25% in the self-administered survey just weeks apart. The difference between the polls is within margins of error.

Catholics also are not embarrassed to say they don't register with their parish. As shown below, the difference between the two types of surveys is within margins of error.

CARA has gone through its archives and adjusted results from telephone polls to remove the effects of over-reporting by carefully comparing the results of 24 surveys, some conducted by telephone and some self-administered, to establish averages of over-reporting (see a related example of applying these methods to Gallup's trends here). We've reconstructed our best estimates of trends for two of the three measures most distorted by social desirability bias (this is not possible for Reconciliation as this question has not been asked in a sufficient number of surveys). CARA's trends for Mass attendance can always be found here from our Frequently Requested Statistics. The trend for Catholics giving to their parish are shown in the figure below:

Just as with Mass attendance, there has been very little change in giving to one's parish in the last decade. If one only had telephone poll results to look at this would present a much more positive outlook on attendance and giving. But the honest view above is best both for the Church and its respondents! Perhaps people would be even more honest in the confessional if they could type their sins rather than speak them? On second thought, removing the interviewer from the survey process was easy and beneficial. Removing the priest from the confessional is certainly no parallel.

Image above courtesy of emilio labrador at Flickr Creative Commons.

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