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Survey: More than a third of US Catholics question loyalty in wake of scandals

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Feb. 24, 2019. Francis celebrated a final Mass to conclude his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests. The Mass was celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Apostolic Palace. (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — A new survey reveals that more U.S. Catholics are questioning whether they should remain in the church today than when news of the “Spotlight” child sex abuse scandal broke in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002.

According to a poll released Wednesday (March 13) by Gallup, more than a third of U.S. Catholics — 37 percent — surveyed in January and February said they have questioned whether they should remain in the church. That’s up from 22 percent in 2002, when The Boston Globe published its report detailing widespread child sex abuse by priests in the city.

Frequent churchgoers were less likely than other Catholics to say they are rethinking their affiliation with the faith this year. Only 22 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly today said they have considered leaving the faith, compared with 37 percent of those who attend nearly weekly or monthly and 46 percent of those who seldom or never attend.

However, all groups showed an increase of 10 percentage points or more compared with the 2002 polling. Back then, 12 percent of those who attended church weekly, 24 percent of those who attended nearly weekly or monthly and 29 percent of those who seldom or never attended had considered leaving the church.

Graphic via Gallup

The shift comes in the wake of the 1,300-page grand jury report released by Pennsylvania’s attorney general in August 2018, which included accounts of alleged sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests against more than 1,000 children in that state over a 70-year span. At least 14 attorneys general in other states have since said they would launch their own investigations or reviews of clergy abuse, and federal authorities have initiated reviews as well.

In November 2018, police searched the offices of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese — the see of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — as part of an investigation into a priest accused of abuse in Texas.

The flurry of renewed coverage of the scandal was compounded by allegations of an abuse cover-up in Chile that led to the resignation of several bishops there last year; the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell in February on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s; and the defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after allegations that the onetime archbishop of Washington, D.C., sexually abused seminarians and a minor earlier in his career.

Pope Francis attempted to address the scandal in February by hosting a four-day conference at the Vatican on the subject, where prominent bishops heard from multiple abuse survivors and the pontiff called for an “all-out battle” against abuse in the church. However, many advocates for survivors left the gathering disappointed by what they saw as a lack of concrete action.

Even so, Gallup reports that most American Catholics still largely support Pope Francis, with 58 percent saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in him. Roughly the same amount — 59 percent — said they had the same level of confidence in the priest at their church, but only 30 percent said the same about U.S. bishops and other Catholic leaders in the country.

Graphic via Gallup

Differences in confidence levels arise when Catholics are broken out by church attendance. Among Catholics who attend church weekly, 86 percent said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the priests at their church, compared with 64 percent of those who attend weekly or monthly and 39 percent of those who never attend.

Graphic via Gallup

Notably, there was more consistent agreement among the groups about their confidence in Pope Francis, with 68 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly saying they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in him, 61 percent who attend weekly or monthly saying so and 50 percent of those who never attend.

Gallup hasn’t asked the same question about confidence in the past for comparison. But it did release data in January showing that the percentage of U.S. Catholics who rate the honesty and ethical standards of the clergy as “very high” or “high” is at its lowest since at least 2004: Only 31 percent of Catholics rated clergy as such in 2018, an 18-point drop from 2017 and a 32-point drop from a 2008 spike in support.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

58 Comments

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  • The problem with Catholicism (one of them, anyway) is the fact that when people think of the Catholic Church they tend to think of the clergy alone, forgetting that the laity represent 99.99% of the Body of Christ. That’s because the clergy have fostered this notion over time and as a result the Catholic laity have become like sheep, forever in need of a shepherd and unable to think or act for themselves like their Protestant brethren. So when a clergy-driven scandal such as the world has witnessed emerges, people naturally think the whole church is corrupt because they were taught to believe that the clergy ARE the church. And when people think to themselves, “should I leave or should I stay?” they should ask themselves if they are leaving or staying for the sake of the whole Body of Christ or only its corrupt leadership. The two are not the same.

  • The increase in skepticism about the Church has occurred as more and more is learned about the extent of the cover-up – the determination of the hierarchy to sacrifice the Church’s children in order to protect the Church’s (and the hierarchy’s) reputation.

    In recent years there has been a lot of talk by Francis and others about transparency and accountability. But in reality, transparency and accountability have only happened when the Church leaders have been forced into it by external pressure. So their promises of transparency and accountability with no voluntary follow-through have only compounded the problem.

    The Church’s long-term prospects in places like Western Europe, the US, and Australia are not good. It will depend on how many in the general population have a psychological need for membership in and obedience to a medieval institution with a medieval mindset that includes medieval bigotry and mysogeny.

  • They claim the moral high ground.

    They claim access to eternal, absolute morality.

    They pray ostentatiously for divine wisdom and divine guidance.

    And newspaper reporters have to tell priests they shouldn’t let other priests rape children.

    The startling thing is not that one third of Catholics are “questioning their loyalty.” The startling thing is that they don’t see the obvious answer. Even more startling is what the hell is wrong with the other two-thirds.

  • The Great Kibosh of All Religions should help in their decision to include eliminating religion from their lives completely.

  • Who is “they” who does all these things?

    Obviously it is NOT the community you belong to.

  • You’ve been predicting the demise of the Catholic Church for some time.

    It continues to grow.

  • Correct. I do not, and would not, belong to a community that would repeatedly allow child molestors continued access to children.

    This is a very low bar.

  • Since these particular child “molestors” (sic) were violating their community’s beliefs, its laws, and the vows they had made to the community, they were hardly part of “a community that would repeatedly allow child molestors continued access to children”.

    Perhaps we could spend a few minutes on the things that are acceptable in your community and do some compare and contrast.

  • Do you run away from your mother when she’s sick?

    Do you distance yourself from the Sacraments, which have the grace to save us, and to give us the strength to pursue holiness?

    There are some dumb-as-fence-post Catholics.

  • I am not surprised at the loss in confidence in U.S. bishops. That one has been a long time building over a lot of issues. Most Catholics do not like the way bishops handled their dispute with the Obama Administration over health insurance coverage. After all, a huge majority of Catholics think contraceptives are incredibly valuable in managing family life, protecting the financial well being of families, protecting the health and career aspirations of women. Most Catholics think civil gay marriage is the right thing for society; I suspect most would also have no problem with gay people fully participating in sacraments and parish life. I suspect that more Catholics are upset and angry about stupid things like firing a LGBT teacher over getting married than think the bishop is acting correctly; same with access to the sacraments for divorced/remarried. Most Catholics think having married priests and female priests is fine – they don’t see why this should be such a problem especially when the number of priests keeps going down, down, down, down, down.

    Our bishops know that most Catholics do not agree with them. But they won’t talk about it, won’t explore why, what is in the heart of the Catholic people who so vehemently disagree with them. They won’t even try to find out why so many Catholics are just not fed spiritually by participation in religious services or what is eating at their hearts in what the Church teaches and how the Church closes them out of any chance to actually help the Church in the current crisis. Clericals only allowed – and that is exactly the problem. I suspect many stay for the love of Jesus, for the expression of faith they find in the Mass and the fellowship with other Catholics.

    The sex abuse scandal is horrible and just goes on and on and on. It may just be the final straw – but it is not the only weight bearing down on Catholics who love their faith but not so-much their Church and how it is lead and some of what it thinks is unchangeable teaching. We can get past this – but not by leaving bishops in absolute control. They obviously don’t know what to do except duck and hide and avoid the responsibility to be adult and to respect the laity as also being adults.

  • You should take your children out of public schools where far more sexual related child abuse occurs.

    95% of the “abuse” stories you’re hearing about today occurred before 2002 or maybe 2005.

    Wake up, you’re being led around the yard by the secular, Catholic hating press.

  • The “let’s jump on the Catholics contingent” don’t want to hear about the public schools.

  • “Most Catholics do not like the way bishops handled their dispute with the Obama Administration over health insurance coverage.”

    Most “Catholics” at National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, etc., etc. did not like the way the bishops handled their dispute with Obama Administration over compulsory participation in providing contraceptives.

    Most actual Catholics – the ones who go to church on Sunday and send their kids to Catholic schools – had zero problems with the bishops on it.

    Most “Catholics” at National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, etc., etc. think civil gay marriage is the right thing for society.

    Most actual Catholics – the ones who go to church on Sunday and send their kids to Catholic schools – believe, however, that same sex physical congress is immoral.

    “I suspect that more Catholics are upset and angry about stupid things like firing a LGBT teacher over getting married than think the bishop is acting correctly …”.

    I suspect they’re not. Of course, they’re the ones with children in Catholic schools, while the “Catholics” at National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, etc., etc. wouldn’t spend the money to send their children to Catholic schools.

    “Most Catholics think having married priests and female priests is fine …”.

    Most Catholics can’t explain the sacrament of Holy Orders, what it does, and why it is restricted to men.

    “Our bishops know that most Catholics do not agree with them.”

    Their job is not to take a poll or a vote.

  • This is spiritual warfare; plain and simple. Satan picking off souls one-by-one – none more precious than those of mother church.

  • The “most” Catholics that you describe are not the Catholics that sit in the pews on Sunday morning.
    The

  • AND
    THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD
    Joe Smith had
    his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day
    Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the
    first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah
    Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being
    created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had
    his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around) and of course the jinn.

    Jesus and his
    family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon
    of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The
    Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary
    biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • The “most” Catholics that you describe are not the Catholics that sit in the pews on Sunday morning.
    The “most” Catholics you describe barely practice their faith, know even less about the catechism; and would rather partake in earthly desires then follow the teachings of Christ.
    Therefore; they are not really Catholics at all.

  • SO WHAT, J.J., if “Gallup hasn’t asked the same question about confidence”!

    BOTTOMLINE: CATHOLICS AIN’T RENOUNCING CATHOLICISM ANY TIME SOON. (Nice dance move, though, there, Galop polers! Better luck next time, yeah?)

    “Many Catholics may consider leaving the church but ultimately decide not to do so, or they may have no intention of leaving but simply be responding to this question as a way to express their frustration with the way the church has handled the problem. … 22% [of Catholics ONLY, however] who attend weekly say … they have questioned whether they would remain in the faith … 86% of weekly churchgoers are [STILL] confident in their own priests … [and] 68% … with respect to Pope Francis”.

    Source: Jeffrey M. Jones, “Many U.S. Catholics Question Their Membership Amid Scandal”, Gallup, March 13, 2019.

  • It’s so much easier if you have a life reason for moving away from where you have lived recently. You don’t have to quit anything or anybody. You just don’t have to restart somewhere else.

  • Completely agree. Catholics have known about and supported the way the bishops have handled sex abuse for decades (I remember it being an issue in the early 90s!). If they have not left by now they are not going to all of a sudden do a mass exodus now!

  • Your wish is not God’s command.

    WATCH:

    “Christianity on the wane in Australia, but Pentecostal church bucks trend “, The Guardian, June 27, 2017.

    “Evangelical Churches Booming In Cuba Amid Tensions”, CBS, March 27, 2017.

    “The surprising growth of evangelical churches in France”, France 24, March 19, 2018.

    “Spanish evangelicals report unprecedented growth, now more than 4,000 churches”, Christian Today, January 24, 2018.

    “Evangelicalism is spreading among the Chinese of South-East Asia”, The Economist, January 4, 2018.

    “Even in Canada, Conservative Churches Are Growing”, Christianity Today, April 21, 2017.

    “Why has Pentecostalism grown so dramatically in Latin America?”, Pew Research Center, November 14, 2014.

    “Evangelical churches boom in Switzerland”, Swiss Info, December 4, 2011.

  • I ran across this from Bishop Sheen. I keep re-reading it.

    “If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church, which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. If the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself”. (Taken from Radio Replies, Vol. 1, p. 9, Rumble & Carty, Tan Publishing, 2015.)”

  • I think it would be very beneficial for parishes to play presentations from the library of Bishop Sheen; for that matter, fr corapi too. The faithful would be much more faithful.

  • That explains why the Gospels are all about Jesus and the Apostles, and not the 99.99% sitting on the hill listening up, eh?

  • I neither expressed a wish nor expected a command.

    Overall in Western nations, religiosity is on the decline.

  • There are only 3% of Americans who are Atheists and only 4% Agnostics and so “religiosity is on the decline”?!?!?!

    READ & WEEP:

    “Evangelicals Once Again Dominate List of Top-growing Large UM Congregations”, Juicy Ecumenism”, November 20, 2018.

    “Some U.S. Christian Groups May be Declining, But Not Evangelicals”, Facts and Trends, March 22, 2018.

    “‘Mainline’ churches are emptying. The political effects could be huge”, Vox, July 14, 2017. Note: “[NOT ‘Evangelical’] churches are emptying”!]

    “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving”, Washington Post, January 4, 2017.

    “Examining the Sources of Conservative Church Growth: Where Are the New Evangelical Movements Getting Their Numbers?”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 36, Number 1, March 1997, pages 71-80.

  • Atheists shall give up on Atheism once it loses its meaning for them.

    Likewise, Catholics shall give up on Catholicism once it loses its meaning for them.

    Neither the wicked Atheists nor the wicked Catholics can rob that meaning.

    If RNS wanna destroy Atheism or Catholicism, try by critiquing Atheism or Catholicism first, not the wicked Atheists and not the wicked Catholics.

    Same applies to Evangelicalism, LGBTism, etc.

    Right you are, Etranger – there’s “not going to [be] all of a sudden a mass exodus” any time soon!

  • I never saw “Holy Mother Church” as my “mother”. I saw such language as clerical and episcopal self-serving.

    Do the sacraments “save us”? We’ve already been saved — by Jesus whose name means “God saves”. No qualifications, no conditions. Luke 15, Matthew 5:43-48, and Matthew 18:21-22 are instructive here.

  • Bishop Sheen — sad to say — either was in denial or in ignorance about the worldliness of his church. The Church of Rome has always been a *worldly* institution.

  • If I could give you a thousand UP arrows, I’d do so. Thank you for tellin’ it like it is. You’ve hit the bulls eye.

  • Your smug attitude reminds me of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

    “He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. ‘Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted'” (Luke 18:9-14).

    You’re the Pharisee.

  • Please see my reply to your fellow Pharisee.

    (Catholicism is not a “faith”. It is a faith tradition.)

  • “Catholics have known about and supported the way the bishops have handled sex abuse for decades…”

    Doubtful.

  • Please see my earlier comment. I don’t take seriously the opinions of anyone who doesn’t adhere to the teachings of the church in the first place.

  • 2002? Isn’t that when people who claim to represent god on earth and who regularly ask the creator of the universe for wisdom and guidance had to be told by secular reporters not to let other priests rape children?

    There is no school district that systematically protected/protects hundreds of child rapists.

    Pedophiles can be found anywhere. Organizations that created/create an environment with easy access to children then ignore all evidence of abuse are more rare.

    The church, after receiving bad publicity, has done the bare minimum necessary to deflect criticism. But they still oppose changes to statute of limitations. And they still oppose mandatory reporting laws.

    And they are still hypocrites. In every diocese, priests have been identified who used the sacrament of confession to identify, groom, rape and silence victims. Rapes occurred DURING confession. The worst penalty, only after reporters were watching, was to defrock the priest. The Catholic church opposes mandatory reporting laws. Apparently using what is learned during confession to protect a child from being raped requires excommunication. Raping a child during confession never requires excommunication.

    Without those horrible secular reporters, the abuse would be continuing unchecked. I would not belong to such an immoral organization.

  • “There is no school district that systematically protected/protects hundreds of child rapists.”

    LOL!

    In fact, there are MANY such school districts. You aren’t following current events: you’re just making up crap.

  • Do the catholic schools still teach the Great Commission, or that proselytism is “solemn nonsense”? Do they teach that the pope is the supreme ruler of the Catholic Church, or that it is the pope in union with the bishops – meaning the pope is only first among equals, a figure head? Do they teach that there is no salvation outside the Church? Or that it is simply the best option, although other faiths can also be means of salvation? Vatican II contains the heresies of false ecumenism and collegiality. The Novus Ordo is not catholic, and you need to reeaxmine just what your church teaches, because it is not the traditional catholic faith. “Hermeneutic of continuity” is a lie. Find out for yourself, and get your family out of the NO and their schools. Homeschool and go sede.

  • You’re finally getting it. What’s happened since 2002 is that the perv bishops, most of whom themselves were homopredators covered up for the new crop of perv clerics.

    this in no way tarnishes the sacraments of the Church. Look up Donatism.

  • Catholic teaching includes “Go forth and teach all nations”, that the Pontiff has universal jurisdiction and a unique teaching charism, but is also the head of a college of bishops, that salvation is possible through Baptism of Blood and Baptism of Desire, and that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” does not exclude from salvation those who seek God but through no fault of their own are not in union with the Church.

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  • The Chicago school system is in absolute turmoil, and the Feds have become involved, after the Chicago Tribune showed itself unafraid of the powerful teachers’ unions and exposed systematic coverup of abuse, failure to prosecute abusing teachers, and so on there.

    More recent abuse was uncovered in this single school system than the Pennsylvania Attorney General uncovered in Catholic churches in the entire state of Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.

  • Why would I weep? Makes no difference to me.

    I said religion was on the decline..I never talked about specific groups.

  • Lark62,
    Just because there are sinners in the church doesn’t make the fact that the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus Christ established. Even Judas betrayed His Master. Truth is Truth.

    Anyway, take a little look of history and what the Soviet Union with the KGB did to infiltrate the Church. Look up the name Bella Dodd and look at her testimony. The Soviet Union wanted the downfall of the Catholic Church.

    I would like to know, if there is something wrong with me staying in the Catholic Church, to whom shall I run to? The Church does have the words of everlasting life. There are those who choose to live by them and then there are those who do not choose to live by them.

    “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” – G.K. Chesterton

    And newspaper reporters think that two men or two women can get married. Yeah, that’s a source of credibility. Where’s all the reporters telling other religions not to commit sexual abuse? Or the public schools? By percentage, those places have higher incidences of abuse. Where’s the cry there?

    Oh, and this is a homosexual problem.

    God bless.

  • “Only 22 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly today said they have considered leaving the faith.” Couldn’t we just label this 1/3 of people identifying as Catholic do not attend Mass weekly?

  • If polls had existed during the times when there were popes and anti-popes, there would have been a field day! No. I think Faith is what keeps most Catholics faithful!

  • You are missing out on a lot of Joy. For, according to Isaac of Stella: “In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary…”

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