Synod: Poll finds practicing, non-practicing Catholics in America are worlds apart

by John L. Allen Jr.

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In reporting on American Catholics, the head of the Knights of Columbus today argued, media outlets should distinguish between “practicing” and “non-practicing” Catholics – because new polling data he presented shows these two groups are, in many ways, worlds apart.

Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, spoke this evening at a Rome news conference to release a new survey of Catholic voters, commissioned by the Knights and carried out by the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion in late September and early October.

Anderson is in Rome attending the Oct. 5-26 Synod of Bishops on the Bible. His news conference this evening was also beamed live via satellite to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Marist College poll found that 65 percent of American Catholics are “practicing,” defined as attending Mass at least once or twice a month, while the 35 percent who don’t attend that often were defined as “non-practicing.”

In some ways, the most interesting results of the survey concern the differences between these two groups.

For example, according to the survey, 59 percent of practicing Catholics describe themselves as “pro-life,” as opposed to 44 percent of the general American population, while 65 percent of non-practicing Catholics say they are “pro-choice,” as opposed to 50 percent of the general population.

On same-sex marriage, 46 percent of non-practicing Catholics are in favor, as opposed to just 30 percent of all Americans, while 75 percent of practicing Catholics are opposed.

“Practicing Catholics hold traditional values at a rate equal to or higher than the American population at large, while non-practicing Catholics are less traditional,” Anderson said, summarizing the results.

“Catholics who are no longer practicing hold positions far outside the mainstream of Catholicism, and have significant disagreements with the moral teaching of the church," he said.

Anderson therefore called upon the media to distinguish between these two groups – practicing and non-practicing – rather than referring to Catholics as an “undifferentiated block.”

On abortion, Anderson said the new survey, in line with other recent polls, illustrates a "broad consensus" among Americans, Catholic and not, for the view that abortion should be limited beyond what was provided for in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Only eight percent of all Americans, Anderson said, and only 15 percent of those who say they’re “pro-choice,” actually support allowing abortion at any point during a pregnancy. Some 60 percent, according to the survey, believe abortion should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and an additional 24 percent would limit abortion to the first trimester of pregnancy.

On that basis, Anderson argued that the label "pro-choice" has become outmoded in terms of describing actual attitudes.

Other findings include:
* Thirty percent of American Catholics live in the Northeast, while only 19 percent of all Americans are in that region.
* Latinos make up 25 percent of American Catholics but only 12 percent of the general population.
* Only 16 percent of practicing Catholics describe themselves as "liberal," as opposed to 26 percent of non-practicing Catholics. Forty percent of practicing Catholics say they're "conservative," but only 29 percent of non-practicing Catholics.
* Thirty-nine percent of all Catholics are Democrats, 30 percent Republicans, and 29 percent are independents.

Details on the poll can be found at Based in the United States, the Knights of Columbus describes itself as “the world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization, with 1.7 million members.”

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