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Catholic women more open to change than Catholic men.

The 1993 NCR/Gallup survey found both Catholic men and women are more change-oriented in thinking and behavior than in the 1987 initial survey.

One also sees a gender shift occurring, indicating Catholic women are now more open to change than Catholic men.

Can the church continue to expect women to transmit religious values to the younger generation? A partial answer is found on three items in our survey showing statistically significant gender differences:

1. 56 percent of women and only 44 percent of men say they would never leave the church, slightly down from 61 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in 1987.

2. Likewise, a higher percentage of women (49 percent) than men (37 percent) say the church is the most important or among the most important parts of their lives. Again, this is a decrease from 1987 when the figure was a full 10 percent higher: 59 percent for women and two percent higher (39 percent) for men.

3. An even larger gender difference is found on an important behavioral item: Mass attendance. Almost half (49 percent) of the women and only one-third (32 percent) of the men say they attend Mass daily or at least weekly. This represents a 3 percent decrease for both women and men over the past six years.

Thus, Catholic women continue to be more committed to the church than their male counterparts, but their commitment has weakened over the past six years. In fact, our survey shows that women are not finding some of the church's teachings very relevant. This has repercussions for the attitudes of the future generation of Catholics (see Table 19 below).

In 1987, two-thirds (66 percent) of both men and women said one can be a good Catholic without obeying the birth control teaching. This increased to approximately three-fourths by 1993, with slightly more women (75 percent) than men (71 percent) responding affirmatively.

A greater increase in questioning the official position of the church is found on the abortion issue. In 1987, almost half of men (45 percent), but only one-third of women (34 percent) said one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching regarding abortion. Now, over half of men (55 percent) and women (56 percent) answer yes to this question. The increase in affirmative responses over the past six years for women (22 percent) is double that of men (10 percent).

 Men Women
 1987 1993 1987 1993
Can be "good Catholic" without...
 Obeying birth control teaching 66 71 66 75
 Obeying abortion teaching 45 55 34 56
Laity should participate in...
 Deciding whether women should
 be ordained 50 60 46 65
--Source: NCR/Gallup polls

These new data challenge the stereotype projected in the media that Catholic women are overwhelmingly committed to the abortion teaching of the church.

Finally, there is evidence that unquestioned acceptance of church law restricting priestly ordination to men continues to weaken. In 1987 about half of the men (50 percent) and women (46 percent) said the laity should have the right to participate in deciding whether women should be ordained to the priesthood. This trend increased by 1993 to almost two-thirds for men (60 percent) and women (65 percent).

In addition, over the past six years there has been a gender shift on this item. The change in women's attitudes (from 46 percent to 65 percent) is double that of men on the women's ordination issue.

Why are we seeing these trends? What are the various factors that have contributed to these changes?

Historical circumstances should be taken into account. In the past six years, American women's thinking has been changed as a result of a growing awareness of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Events such as the Senate hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas and the (U.S. Navy sexual harrassment) Tailhook episode could have been the impetus for attitudinal changes for many, both male and female.

For some Catholic women in America, the long process of the drafting and redrafting of a bishops' pastoral letter on women also contributed to a rethinking about their position in the church. In the minds of laity who were expecting more, the final draft was viewed as a watered-down version of the original. This disappointing result, along with the critiques of each version of the pastoral by feminist theologians, made some Catholics more aware of and sensitive to patriarchal attitudes regarding sexuality and women's subordinate position in the church.

In addition, by the time the May 1993 NCR survey was conducted by the Gallup organization, greater numbers of women had just been elected to Congress, and the Clinton Administration's policy of placing women like Janet Reno and Donna Shalala in very important positions had received considerable media coverage.

These events were part of the historical context that could have contributed to a change in thinking about women's contributions to all of society's institutions including government, the economy, law, education, media, family, medicine, as well as religion. Future research is needed to test these hypotheses.

Parish resources

We included some items in our survey to explore the laity's attitudes regarding accommodations to the continuingj priest shortage. For instance, we asked if survey respondents would be willing to accept certain changes in their home parishes in the future if a shortage of priests required a reduction of priestly activities. We provided a list of six possible changes.

Table 20 below combines both the "very acceptable" and "somewhat acceptable" responses. Because this question had been asked on an earlier survey (Dean R. Hoge, The Future of Catholic Leadership: Responses to the Priest Shortage, Sheed and Ward, 1987), we were able to look at trends.

In general, we found that the laity's acceptance of most of the possible parish modifications has increased over the past eight years. This, we feel, is good news for those bishops who will be making decisions as to whether to close or to amalgamate parishes, to recruit foreign priests or to appoint a lay administrator.

Over half the laity said they would accept baptisms and marriages performed in their home parishes by deacons or lay officials. Over half would also accommodate to having a lay administrator and visiting priest, with no resident priest in their parish, a 17 percent increase over the past eight years. On the other hand, only 41 percent would accept less than one Mass a week or not having a priest available for visiting the sick. Only a third (30 percent) would accept the situation of not having a priest available in their parish for administering last rites for the dying; but the percentage of laity accepting this situation has doubled since 1985.


We also created a new item for this survey to explore the laity's attitudes on substitutions for Sunday Mass. We asked them whether a Communion service led by a layperson using consecrated hosts would be a satisfactory substitute for them, either on a regular basis, on occasion or not at all if Sunday Mass could not be celebrated due to the priest shortage.

Over half (54 percent) replied that the Communion service led by a layperson would be satisfactory on occasion; almost a third (29 percent) said not at all, and 16 percent said it would be satisfactory on a regular basis. When we combined the "regular basis" with the "on occasion" responses we found that a large majority (70 percent) would find this substitution satisfactory.

There were some interesting regional differences. Three-fourths of laity in the Midwest (73 percent), West (73 percent) and South (77 percent) would accept lay-led Communion services on occasion or on a regular basis, as compared to two-thirds (67 percent) residing in the east.

This apparent willingness to accommodate to a lay-led Communion service, at least on occasion, is a surprising finding. Since this is the first time this question has been asked in a national survey, we cannot discuss any trends.

The regional differences could be due to the fact that the eastern portion of the country currently has very few lay-led parishes. The priest shortage is more acute in the other three regions. (See Ruth A. Wallace, They Call Her Pastor: A New Role for Catholic Women, Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1992).

However, it is important to compare the percentage of laity who would accept Mass less than weekly in their parishes (only 41 percent) with those who would find a lay-led Communion service satisfactory, at least on occasion (70 percent).

Bishops who are making decisions about alternate staffing of parishes should be made aware of these attitudes, especially the laity's openness to accepting a deacon or lay administrator and the laity's willingness to accommodate to lay-led Communion services, at least on occasion. Perhaps fewer parishes would need to be closed or amalgamated if these new resources were more frequently tapped.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Catholicism: Trends in the '90s - NCR/Gallup Poll Supplement
Author:Wallace, Ruth A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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