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Updated 10:00 AM April 11, 2005




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Attitudes of Roman Catholics continue to change

The ability of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to tell people how to live their lives is declining steadily, according to data from the World Values Survey (WVS), conducted by the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

The data show that although most people continue to identify themselves as a specific religious denomination, in the case of Roman Catholics this identification often does little to predict their values and attitudes.

For example, the Catholic Church holds that divorce never is justifiable. But the percentage of the public that agrees with this position has been declining steadily during the past two decades, according to ISR political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart, who directs the WVS. Fifty years ago, few practicing Catholics accepted divorce. This figure had fallen to 27 percent in the 1981 WVS, and continued to decline to the point that in 2000 only 6 percent of the Catholic respondents in the U.S. said that divorce never was justifiable. At that point, Catholics were no more likely to reject divorce than the U.S. population as a whole.

"This decline is much steeper than the decline in church attendance, which has been relatively modest in the U.S., as compared with most developed countries," says Inglehart. For example, while 49 percent of U.S. Catholics currently go to mass once a week, only 41 percent of Catholics worldwide do so.

Attitudes toward other practices that the Catholic Church forbids, such as abortion and homosexuality, have followed the same pattern as attitudes toward divorce, at least in the U.S., Inglehart points out.

Comparing Catholic and non-Catholic views in three heavily Catholic countries (Italy, Spain and Mexico) along with the United States, Inglehart examined the percentage of both Catholics and non-Catholics who believe that abortion is never justifiable. He found the percentage has declined steadily in the United States and in Spain between 1981 and 2000. In Italy and Mexico, however, the percentage saying abortion never is justifiable has increased among both Catholics and non-Catholics. Mexico is by far the most conservative on this issue, with about two-thirds of those surveyed saying abortion is never justifiable.

While the percentage of U.S. Catholics saying that homosexuality never is justifiable has plummeted from 60 percent in 1981 to 19 percent in 2000, about 32 percent of Italian Catholics think homosexuality never is justifiable, and 48 percent of Mexican Catholics hold that view.

Overall, 48 percent of Catholics in Italy, Spain, Mexico and the United States say homosexuality never is justifiable, compared with 46 percent of non-Catholics in those countries. Spanish Catholics and non-Catholics are much less likely to hold this view, Inglehart says.

Additional analyses of WVS data from 1999-2001, which included 91,696 respondents from 71 countries, showed that U.S. Catholics were much less likely than Catholics in selected other countries to say that euthanasia never was justified.

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