By the numbers: Most Catholics are being run by the culture

The recent Pew poll about Catholics and family reveals that Chesterton was right when he said, “The next great heresy will be an attack on morality, especially sexual morality.”

In 1905, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

It is an error to suppose that statistics are merely untrue. They are also wicked. As used today, they serve the purpose of making masses of men feel helpless and cowardly . . . But I have another quarrel with statistics. I believe that even if they are technically correct they can be entirely misleading. When we hear what we are told are real scientific statistics, it is psychologically impossible not to think that they mean something. Generally they mean nothing. Sometimes they mean something that isn’t true.

Apparently in anticipation of the Catholic World Meeting of Families this month and the Bishops Synod on the Family next month, the Pew Research Center has published the results of a survey of Catholics regarding their views on the family. The survey is interesting both for what it reveals and does not reveal.

First of all is the shocking statistic that 45% of the population is “either Catholic or connected to Catholicism.” What? If that’s true, we should be running the country, winning every election, and orchestrating all cultural currents according to the wishes of the Pope. There is not another interest group that can even touch such numbers as ours. And yet the results of the survey suggest the opposite trend: most Catholics are being run by the culture. In fact, the headline of the study itself trumpets “Catholics Open to Non-traditional Families.” So, the first number to be dealt with is that 45% figure. It turns out that “connected to Catholicism” means people who have either left the Church, have a Catholic spouse or a Catholic parent, consider themselves “culturally Catholic” but do not attend church or practice the faith, or they attend Catholic churches but are not members. Take that group out and only 20% of the population actually identify themselves as Catholic. A dramatic difference. But the drama continues. If one out of five people is Catholic that is still a significant number.

But, of those who identify themselves as Catholic, 39% do not view homosexual behavior as sinful, 49% do not think that remarriage without an annulment is a sin, 54% do not regard cohabitation as a sin, and 66% do not believe that contraception is a sin. So, a large number of people who call themselves Catholic do not subscribe to Catholic teaching.

The obvious danger of these numbers, and the way they are presented, is that there are some who may try to use them to argue that Church teaching needs to be changed, in this case the teaching regarding divorce and remarriage, cohabitation and even same-sex unions. Since it appears that many if not most Catholics already seem to approve of these “non-traditional” arrangements, shouldn’t the Church approve them, too?

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that while a significant portion of those who call themselves Catholics do not adhere to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, roughly the same group does not attend Mass regularly or go to confession regularly. Of the 20% who identify themselves as Catholic, 39% do not go to Mass at least once a week, and more than half (57%) go to confession less than once a year. 14% go to confession “several times a year,” and 7% go to confession monthly.

The study states that those who attend Mass regularly are “less accepting” of homosexual behavior, cohabitation and divorce and remarriage, which is to say that those who are more faithfully Catholic are more faithfully Catholic.

Church teaching is clear. What is also clear is that many people either do not know the teaching or willfully ignore it. But that is not the reason to change the teaching, as some seem to be suggesting.

Every faithful Catholic knows that we have a sinful nature, but that giving in to sin does not make the sin go away. We also know that denying the sin also does not make it go away. It is still a sin, and sin still has consequences. It separates us from God. It does not bring communion.

At the conclusion of G.K. Chesterton’s remarkable epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred, who has defeated the barbarian invasion of England, prophecies of an attack by a new kind of barbarian, who does not attack with physical violence but with a subtle and wicked philosophy. “By this sign you shall know them,” he says, “That they ruin and make dark. . .”

By all men bound to Nothing,
Being slaves without a lord,
By one blind idiot world obeyed,
Too blind to be abhorred;

By terror and the cruel tales
Of curse in bone and kin,
By weird and weakness winning,
Accursed from the beginning,
By detail of the sinning,
And denial of the sin.

We are certainly watching the fulfillment of this prophecy. The attack on the family has been going on for the last century, and what the Church calls the “mother cell” of the society has been constantly undermined by the separation of husband and wife, of father and mother, of parent and child, of sex and procreation, and the unnatural union of the unmarried. We have not only disobeyed the rules, now we are trying to change the rules so that they align with our disobedience. Chesterton warned in 1926, “The next great heresy will be an attack on morality, especially sexual morality.”

The motive? We hear that the motive is “love.” But love means sacrifice, not self-indulgence. We hear that the motive is “freedom.” But freedom comes only from obedience, not disobedience. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (CCC, 2339)

There is another story told by the numbers. You have to look hard to find it, but it is there. Even though there are Catholics who reject Church teaching, they still want to be Catholic. They still want God, even if they want God on their own terms. Ultimately, they know this is not a satisfactory arrangement. They know this by their own badly arranged lives. And even in that large and porous category of those are “connected” to the Church but are actually disconnected, there is a percentage who picture themselves reconciling with the Church. They still want the sacraments, including the final sacrament that comes at the end of this life. It is that desire that leads to repentance. That is a sign of hope. It reveals that the essence of the Catholic faith is not a matter of popular opinion or personal opinion. “A Catholic,” says Chesterton, “is someone who has bucked up the courage to admit that there is something else that is smarter than he is.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dale Ahlquist 50 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.