Proud to be Catholic? A groundbreaking America survey asks women about their lives in the church

Catholic women may be part of a Democratic voting wave in 2018. They are ready to welcome women deacons. Many feel their parishes are inclusive of women and welcome divorced and remarried Catholics and non-heterosexual Catholics. But they think the church could do more to welcome unmarried parents, single mothers and people who have lost their spouses. And while Catholic women who are Republicans and Democrats differ slightly on whether or not “protecting life” or “helping the poor” is most important, on most other markers of Catholic identity their differences are statistically insignificant.

Mass attendance
How often do you attend Mass?

These are just a handful of the findings of the America Survey, commissioned by America Media and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in partnership with GfK, a survey firm. It is the most comprehensive survey of American Catholic women ever conducted. The following is an excerpt from the executive summary. The full summary is available online at cara.georgetown.edu.

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The study was conducted between Aug. 3 and Aug. 24, 2017. A total of 1,508 women self-identifying as Catholic in the United States completed the survey (in English or Spanish). The margin of sampling error for the overall sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. CARA estimates that there were 37.3 million Catholic females in the United States at the time of the survey. Of this population, 28.8 million were adults.

Religious belief, practice and parish life

About a quarter of Catholic women in the United States attend Mass once a week or more often (24 percent). Nearly the same share, 23 percent, attend Mass less than weekly, but at least once a month. Twenty-seven percent attend a few times a year and 26 percent attend rarely or never.

Millennials (born in 1982 or later) and post-Vatican II generation women (born between 1961 and 1981) are less likely than older Catholic women to attend Mass at least once a week. Seventeen percent of millennials and 18 percent of post-Vatican II respondents indicated they attend Mass at least once a week, compared with 31 percent of Vatican II respondents (born between 1943 and 1960) and 53 percent of pre-Vatican II respondents (born before 1943). There are no statistically significant differences in frequency of Mass attendance by education or race and ethnicity. But married Catholic women are significantly more likely to attend Mass weekly (29 percent) than those who are divorced or separated (19 percent), have never married (16 percent) or are living with a partner (6 percent).

Fifteen percent of Catholic women have served as catechists or religious education teachers in a parish. Fewer than one in 10 have served in other roles. Overall, 67 percent of Catholic women have not served in a parish in any of the ministry roles they were asked about. Respondents are least likely to be involved in young adult ministry (4 percent), as an R.C.I.A. team member or sponsor (4 percent) or as an usher or minister of hospitality (4 percent). One in 20 has been an altar server (5 percent).

Helping the poor and receiving Communion are the most important to respondents’ “sense of what it means to be Catholic” (45 percent “very much”). Less important are being involved with their parish (18 percent) or going to confession regularly (20 percent).

Do priest(s) in your parish do a good job of including women in ...
Catholic identity

Catholic women who self-identify as Democrats are more likely than others to say helping the poor is “very much” important to their sense of what it means to be Catholic. Catholic women who self-identify as Republicans are more likely than others to say protecting life is “very much” important to their sense of what it means to be Catholic. Partisan differences for other questions are minimal or not statistically significant.

What’s important?

Catholic women are more likely to agree “very much” that divorced and remarried Catholics (25 percent) and non-heterosexual Catholics (25 percent) are welcome in their parish than are unwed Catholic parents (16 percent). Fewer than a quarter agree “very much” that their parish has ministries to help widows deal with the loss of a spouse (22 percent) or that their parish provides support for new mothers (19 percent). Only 18 percent agree “very much” that women are involved in the decision-making of their parish (a majority, 53 percent, agree “somewhat” or “very much” with this statement).

About half of Catholic women (49 percent) “agree strongly” with the statement “I am proud to be Catholic.” One in five “agree somewhat” (19 percent). Thus, collectively, 68 percent of Catholic women agree that they are proud to be Catholic. A quarter neither agree nor disagree. Seven percent disagree with the statement (4 percent “somewhat” and 3 percent “strongly”).

Respondents were asked if they ever considered leaving Catholicism. Overall, 82 percent of Catholic women had not considered this. Twelve percent had considered it but never left. Six percent considered this and for a time no longer considered themselves Catholic. Note that all respondents to the survey self-identified as Catholic in the first question, meaning they all consider themselves Catholics today. An open-ended question about the reasons why they had left, however, revealed that some have made only a partial return—considering themselves Catholic but not feeling that they have “come back to the church.”

America Special Topics: Women in the Church

When asked to “briefly indicate why you left,” respondents who had considered leaving the church were able to describe their reasons in their own words. These responses were categorized, coded and counted. The most common reasons were related to some disagreement with the Catholic Church’s stance on a particular issue (39 percent) followed by being attracted to another faith or religion (23 percent). Fifteen percent cited an issue with their local parish; 9 percent cited “hypocrisy” of the church or its members; and 7 percent cited the clergy sex abuse scandal. One in five (21 percent) provided a reason that did not fit these categories and that could not be combined with other similar responses.

Following the open-ended question about reasons for considering leaving, a series of closed-ended questions asked about the importance of some specific reasons. Respondents who had considered leaving were most likely to cite disagreement with church teachings (38 percent) and the status of women in the church (23 percent) as being “very much” important to their thinking. They were less likely to have been attracted to another religion (9 percent).

As noted previously, all respondents self-identified-only as Catholic. Those who had noted that they left the faith for a time were asked to explain why they returned. Thirty-five percent indicated they had not returned to the church—even though they continued to self-identify as Catholic. This result represents the gap between self-identifying with a religion and feeling that one is a member of that religion (i.e., in the broader church or in a parish).

Nearly all of these self-identifying-only respondents report attending Mass a few times a year or less often. Seventeen percent indicate they felt a call or sought to return to the faith they were raised in. Sixteen percent noted their return was related to family. Thirteen percent cited a need for spiritual fulfillment. Nine percent indicated they had come to feel more positive about Catholicism. Seven percent cited a change in their local parish community as bringing them back. One in 10 cited some other reason that could not be classified with other responses.

Do priest(s) in your parish do a good job of including women in ...
Parish life

Women in the parish

Around half of Catholic women say the priests in their parish “do a good job” of including women in various aspects of parish life. Respondents were most likely to say “yes, definitely” that priests in their parish do a good job of including women in the parish community (57 percent). Thirty-five percent “somewhat” felt like priests do a good job at this. Only 8 percent said priests do not do a good job of this. Fewer said “yes, definitely” that priests do a good job of including women on parish councils (50 percent), in lay ministry positions (49 percent) and in the decision-making of the parish (45 percent).

As shown in the figure on Page 15, the more frequently respondents attend Mass, the more likely they are to say the priests in their parish are definitely doing a good job including women in aspects of parish life. See Page 18 for America’s feature article on Catholic women in leadership.

There are also some partisan differences. Women who self-identify as Republicans are more likely than others (those unaffiliated with a party and Democrats) to say the priests at their parish are definitely doing a good job including women in the parish community (67 percent compared with 53 percent of the politically unaffiliated and 55 percent of Democrats); on parish councils (60 percent compared with 48 percent and 47 percent); in lay ministry positions (58 percent compared with 46 percent and 46 percent); and in the decision-making of the parish (51 percent compared with 45 percent and 42 percent).

Respondents were given the definition of the deacon’s role and then asked: “Do you feel the Catholic Church should allow women, ages 35 and older, to be ordained as permanent deacons?”

Six in 10 Catholic women, after reading the description provided, responded “yes,” that they supported the possibility for women ages 35 and older being ordained as permanent deacons (60 percent). One in five indicated that they may support this but want to learn more before answering (21 percent). Twelve percent said they “didn’t know.” Only 7 percent said “no,” that they would not support women being ordained as deacons.

The oldest and the youngest Catholic women are less likely than those of the Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations to respond “yes” to the question about female deacons. There is not much difference in the proportions responding “no” across generations. (Note: Vatican II generation women would have been coming of age in the church when the permanent diaconate was restored. They may be more familiar with the role of deacons than women of other generations.) However, there is an increase in “don’t know” responses among younger Catholic women.

Weekly Mass attenders are less likely than those attending Mass less often to respond “yes” and more likely to respond “no” to the idea of female deacons.

Women who self-identify as Democrats are more likely than Republicans or the politically unaffiliated to say “yes,” they support female deacons (65 percent compared with 57 percent of the unaffiliated and 55 percent of Republicans). Non-Hispanic white women are more likely than those self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino to support women being able to be ordained as deacons (66 percent compared with 50 percent).

Catholic women with more education are more likely than those with less education to support women being able to become deacons. Seventy percent of those with a college degree responded “yes” they support female deacons compared with 63 percent of those with some college, 57 percent of those with a high school degree and 39 percent of those with less than a high school degree.

Respondents were asked if they had ever personally experienced sexism within the Catholic Church. One in 10 said “yes” they had; nine in 10 responded “no” to this question. Those who responded “yes” were instructed, “If you wish to do so, please describe your experience.” The most common responses relate to women feeling they were perceived as inferior in the church and not being allowed to serve in ministry—especially as altar servers.

Five responses, representing 0.3 percent of women surveyed, referred to accusations of inappropriate behavior. (Note: CARA does not know the identity of respondents nor did any respondents name individuals in the comments made.)

Among sub-groups, the following are more likely than all Catholic women to say they have personally experienced sexism in the church: those who attended a Catholic college or university (25 percent); those who considered becoming a religious sister or nun (23 percent); those who attended a Catholic high school (16 percent); and those who have served in a parish ministry role (15 percent). Among those who say they have personally experienced sexism within the church, 44 percent say they have seriously thought about leaving the church at some point. Sixty-three percent of Catholic women in our survey are married (46 percent to a Catholic spouse and 17 percent to a non-Catholic spouse). Six percent are widowed. One in 10 is separated or divorced. Six percent live with a partner. Fifteen percent have never married.

Should women be deacons?
Should women be deacons?

Church wedding planning?

Never-married Catholic women were asked if it is important for them to marry a Catholic and how important it is to them to be married in the Catholic Church.

Only 18 percent of never-married Catholic women say it is “very much” important to them to marry someone who is Catholic. Twelve percent said they do not plan to marry (2 percent of all adult Catholic women). About a third, 32 percent, of those who did not answer the question about marrying a Catholic as “do not plan to marry” (i.e., they feel likely to marry in the future) said it is “very much” important to them to marry in the Catholic Church. A majority of these respondents said it is at least “somewhat” important to them (56 percent). (Note: An additional 1 percent of the respondents for this second question said they did not plan to marry.)

The typical Catholic woman in the United States has had two children, and both of those children are Catholic. (Note: “Typical” refers to the median observation.) Most often, they grew up in households where they had at least three brothers or sisters. Thus, their parents often had twice as many children as they have had. (Note: Among those with brothers and sisters, 59 percent indicate all of their siblings are Catholic today. Fifteen percent indicate none of their siblings are Catholic now. Twenty-six percent indicate some of their siblings are Catholic now and some are not.) For the typical Catholic woman, two of their three siblings remain Catholic as adults. Today, only one in 10 Catholic women has had four children (9 percent), and 20 percent have had three. Twenty-eight percent have had two children, 13 percent one and 25 percent none.

The median number of children for married and for separated or divorced Catholics is two. The median number of children for widows is three. The median number for never-married Catholics is zero (80 percent have no children). For those living with a partner, the median number of children is one (47 percent have no children).

Of those who have had children, 73 percent report that all of their children are Catholic now. Fifteen percent say none of their children are Catholic. Twelve percent indicate some of their children remain Catholic and some are not.

Respondents who had ever married or who are living with a partner were asked, “Have you and a partner ever practiced Natural Family Planning or N.F.P., which Catholic marriage preparation programs often teach as a method of postponing pregnancy without the use of artificial contraception?” Overall, 22 percent said “yes” and 78 percent said “no.”

About a third of ever-married Catholic women (including those living with a partner) who attend Mass weekly have used N.F.P. compared with 12 percent of those attending Mass a few times a year or less often. Hispanic respondents are more likely than non-Hispanic respondents to say they have used N.F.P. (27 percent compared with 19 percent). Generationally, the oldest and youngest generations of Catholic women are the most likely to indicate that they had used N.F.P. Thirty-six percent of those of the pre-Vatican II generation have used N.F.P. as have 26 percent of those of the millennial generation. Vatican II Catholics (those born between 1943 and 1960) are the least likely to have used N.F.P. (18 percent).

Political leanings

Forty-one percent of adult Catholic women in the United States are Democrats (excluding those who lean Democratic; 59 percent including “leaners”). Twenty-four percent of adult Catholic women in the United States are Republicans (excluding those who lean Republican; 38 percent including those leaners). Thirty-five percent are undecided or party leaners (3 percent are unaffiliated if “leaners” are excluded).

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they intend to vote in November 2018 (87 percent compared with 79 percent). Given the larger number of Democrats, however, this segment would still outnumber Republicans at the polls if actual turnout reflects voter intentions. Only 59 percent of the undecided or party leaners say they intend to vote in 2018. Overall, the poll estimates 74 percent of Catholic women intend to vote in next year’s election.

America Special Topics: Women in the Church

There are an estimated 25.3 million Catholic female adults who are eligible to vote. If 74 percent of this population were to turn out to vote at the midterms, this would be equivalent to 18.7 million voters. Voter intentions do not always translate into voter turnout, however. Since 2002, between 36 percent and 41 percent of the voting-eligible population has voted in midterm elections. If 40 percent of eligible Catholic women were to vote in November 2018 this would be equivalent to a voting bloc of 10.1 million. In 2014, a total of 83.3 million votes were cast in the midterm elections.

Among those with an intention to vote in 2018, Democrats are most inclined to vote for Democratic candidates (94 percent) and Republicans are most inclined to vote for Republicans (91 percent). The unaffiliated lean toward voting Democratic (41 percent) instead of Republican (34 percent). Overall, more Catholic women intend to vote for Democrats (55 percent) than for Republicans (37 percent).

Overall, only 12 percent of Catholic women who intend to vote in 2018 say they will use Catholic social teaching to help them decide how to vote.

Respondents who intend to vote are slightly more likely to say that statements made by Pope Francis will help them decide how to vote in 2018 than will Catholic social teaching (19 percent compared to 12 percent). Significantly more Democratic women say Pope Francis’ statements will be helpful to them rather than will social teachings of the church (20 percent compared with 7 percent). See Page 28 for America’s feature article on Catholic women and voting.

©2018 The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and America magazine. No portion may be duplicated or copied without express written consent. For more information, contact CARA at: 2300 Wisconsin Ave, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20007; (202) 687-8080; or CARA@georgetown.edu.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
9 months 1 week ago

It is encouraging to read of research about Catholic women! For too long, we have been invisible, even to the church itself. The most interesting finding to me was, "The most common responses relate to women feeling they were perceived as inferior in the church and not being allowed to serve in ministry - especially as altar servers." The role of altar server is very visible and banning girls and women from being altar servers sends a clear message that females are considered inferior. My own conclusion about girls being banned from altar serving, before I went to first grade, back in the pre-Vatican II church, was "God hates girls." Cassocks and surplices on altar servers still convey this message to me.

Nora Bolcon
9 months 1 week ago

I have to say this report seems a bit agenda based. Unfortunately, I have found that CARA asks questions it knows may give answers it prefers rather than ask questions that lend to answers that help the church realize how badly sexism has effected this church. First of all, why is CARA asking if women want to see female permanent deacons instead of priests? Because then you will find that more than half of Catholics want women ordained priests. I want women ordained priests and equally ordained to the Sacrament of Holy Orders compared to men so they can rise to Bishop, Cardinal and Pope. I don't want any Permanent Deacons, male or female, since this is an unnecessary, highly clericalized ministry, even if both men and women are in it, and it stumps the growth of parishes by lessening the roles and voice of lay people. So all we know is there are some women who don't want deacons but we have no idea why. We don't know if those same women want to see female priests instead. Permanent Deacons have no authority in our church so gaining this ministry gains no voice or vote for women either. We are told only one in 10 women have ever felt the church was sexist - ok this is way off. I am wondering did CARA just survey a convent of nuns because my own experience, especially now, has been many, the majority of practicing Catholic Women, who go to church about once a week, at least, have felt the church's sexism on a personal level. And then this stat. 73% of children of Catholic Parents are still Catholic Now? Really, where the heck are they? - I can't find them in my parish or in the many other parishes I have gone to over the last 15 years. This next stat seems even more crazy, a third of married Catholic women who attend mass weekly use NFP - really? I have not met one in my entire lifetime and I go to church weekly. My mother tried it briefly but gave up on it because it took much of the joy out of their marriage and sex life and my Dad complained about it all the time. They are now divorced. So my feeling is that this survey is a tad skewed. Which is why it is probably better to get the results of unbiased survey takers like the PEW Report instead. Don't get me wrong though if everything is daisies for the church now that is good news so now we can concentrate on serious change because the vocation crisis is over and the pews are full.

Andrew Wolfe
9 months 1 week ago

Maybe CARA asked about permanent diaconate because fewer Catholic women want women's ordination than you think, and it's easier to portray dissidence this way. Maybe you're way off in measuring the Church by sexism and worldly authority instead of by the salvation of souls. If you measure priesthood by authority, rather than by service, you are just not getting the Gospel message.

Tim Donovan
9 months 1 week ago

I know as a man I may not have the "right" to comment on a survey about the views of women. I 'm gay, and although I have had sex with men in past years, I regretted it, and went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I go to the Sacrament each month, as I think it's important to receive forgiveness for our faults against God and our neighbors.
It's encouraging to know that the great majority of Catholic women surveyed are "proud" to be Catholic. It doesn't surprise me that only 24% of women surveyed attend Mass once a week or mire, since this is approximately the number of Catholics (men and women combined) who attend Mass weekly, according to recent surveys of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where I live. However, it is sad, because even as a Vatican II Catholic (born in 1962) we were taught in Catholic school (as well as by my parents) that we were obligated to attend Mass, or else commit a mortal sin. But my parents also faithfully attended Mass, so their good example may have influenced me to do so. Also, as Bishop Barron,an auxiliary bishop of Low Angeles has explained in his excellent reflections on the Gospel each day, God doesn't "need" our worship of prayers. He knows what we may want it need, and an all -powerful Being doesn't need to be worshipped, either. However, we need for ourselves to join as a community to worship our Lord, and to receive the gift of the Eucharist. This, sadly, is another disappointing result, that most Catholic women believe receiving Communion (along with helping people) is most important when it comes to being a Catholic. From my experience, almost everyone (men as well as women) receive Holy Communion seemingly every week. However, the church has taught (and still teaches) that we must be free from mortal sin to be worthy to receive the Eucharist. I believe that St. Paul in one of his epistles speaks of it being wrong to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus unworthily. Nor is it surprising that almost 80% of Catholic women don't use natural family planning (again, I'm sure that most men approve of contraception and use condoms). However, it's encouraging that the youngest of Catholic women are more likely to use natural family planning than Vatican II women. Although I haven't read Humana Vitae, I know that Blessed Pope Paul not only taught that contraception is wrong, but encouraged natural family planning, and was prophetic in my opinion when he taught that contraception would lead to the acceptance of abortion as well as a greater objectification of women by men. I don't think it's a coincidence that Professor Irvin Cushner, a legal abortion advocate, has described abortion as the "second line of defense" against " the unwanted child. " Sexual harassment has a long history, but I do believe that contraception has led to an idea that sex has no consequences, and therefore women can be used (actually, abused) as mere objects, or playthings. Finally, I do agree that helping other people is essential to being a good Catholic, since Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

Tim O'Leary
9 months 1 week ago

This survey has several major limitations, if it was meant to determine what "Catholic" women believe. The first is the self-identifying (SICs) nature of the survey. After all, 53% of the SICs would most accurately be described as lapsed or non-practicing or cultural Catholics, since they rarely attend mass, or go to confession (a whopping 38% claim they "never" go to confession & 32% don't go even once a year). They do not seem to know their faith, given the serious nature of these lapses. It was ironic to see that 82% said they never thought of leaving, which must include many who never arrive to be able to leave! It is like saying I have never thought of leaving Mars.

So, the opinions expressed in the survey do not accurately represent what "Catholic women" believe, and they are hardly distinguishable from the general "Christian" population. But, there are some promising signs of this collection of women. 90% have never experienced sexism in the Church (despite some slanting of the questions) and 18-36% have used Natural Family planning, including 26% of the youngest generation!

Dan Acosta
9 months 1 week ago

Thank you for this, Mr. Leary. When I saw how many respondants rarely or never went to Mass, I dismissed this survey as irrelevant. I also have to question to value of a survey that doesn't ask how much people really know about why the Church teaches that only men can be priests. Fianlly two sample questions asked how women "feel" about about particular issues. Is this a survey of feelings? Not much to gain from this survey.

Tim Behnke
9 months 1 week ago

Have to agree that the survey is pretty worthless if they have 53% of respondents that Catholic in name only. If you can't even follow the basic precepts of the Church then you are clueless about your faith so the responses might as well be from someone of any faith. Take a real survey of active, practicing female Catholics and I would be more interested. This one is laughable.

Kevin Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

I couldn't care less what Catholic men or women "want.". Jesus' teachings are all that matter. He didn't instruct us to take surveys.

Kevin Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

I couldn't care less what Catholic men or women "want.". Jesus' teachings are all that matter. He didn't instruct us to take surveys.

Toby Gillis
9 months 1 week ago

Hear, hear. Very few things that the catholic church teaches are what Jesus taught.

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