06 March 2020, The Tablet

Catholics becoming more liberal on social issues

Catholics becoming more liberal on social issues

Requiem Mass on 50th Anniversary, in 2017, of 1967 Abortion Act. (file pic)

Catholics’ views of whether abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia are justified have all moved in a more socially liberal direction, according to a new research report.

Researchers at Roman Catholics in Britain: Faith, Society and Politics, a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and based at the University of Leicester and St Mary’s University, have compared five data sets from surveys of social attitudes over the last 40 years. The results show a significant liberalisation of attitudes towards same-sex relationships, euthanasia, and abortion, with the greatest shift occurring over same-sex relations. The shifts have been marked across both general and situation-specific questions on these social issues, including on questions where no significant shift had previously been recorded.

The data in the report has been drawn from British Social Attitudes surveys (BSA) from 1983 to 2018 and the European Values Study (EVS) from 1981 to 2017, which chart social attitudes across time for the UK and Europe respectively.

One question, on abortion for the situation where the couple cannot afford more children, asked between 1991 and 2018, has seen a steady increase in support for the view that an abortion in such circumstances was wrong only sometimes or not wrong at all. Although the view that abortion in those circumstances was always wrong or mostly wrong remains the majority opinion amongst Catholics, the figure recorded in 2018 for those opinions was the lowest on record.

On euthanasia, the proportion of Catholics who support “doctors being be allowed by law to end a patient’s life, if that patient had requested it” has also increased over time. Although the number of Catholics in support of the proposal has always outweighed the number of Catholics opposing it in every survey covered in the study, the gap has widened significantly, especially compared to the 1989 survey results. In 1989 Catholics supported of euthanasia in only slightly greater proportion than they opposed it; in 2018 supporters outweighed opponents around two to one.

The most significant change in social values amongst Catholics over time has been over same-sex relations. In 1983, Catholic’s attitudes were divided over homosexual and lesbian relationships, with 52 per cent holding them to be rarely wrong or not wrong at all, but 45 per cent seeing them as always, mostly or sometimes wrong. In 2018, 82 per cent of Catholics see same sex relations as rarely or not wrong at all, with only 18 per cent seeing them as always, mostly, or sometimes wrong.

These shifts in attitudes have come alongside a drop in Catholic’s confidence in religious authority over time, according to the same research project. Only 54 per cent of Catholics had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in religious institutions in 2017, a drop of over 10 per cent from 1990. At the same time, the number of Catholics expressing some confidence in religious authority has increased significantly in the same time period. 

The British Social Attitudes Survey and European Values Study are generally well-respected, both for the consistency of their methodology over decades and the large, sample sizes of the study. The research report has only measured those who self-identify as Catholic, rather than the proportion of that group who are religiously observant, however. The number of Catholics who attend mass weekly has been declining for decades, amounting to only 23 per cent of Catholics according to the latest BSA study.

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