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Special Report

Women and men: declining commitment, increased autonony and interest in decision-making


The three Gallup Surveys demonstrated that the thinking and behavior of Catholic men and women changed between 1987 and 1993 and basically stabilized by 1999. Consequently, the data defined some noteworthy trends. There was a decline in commitment to Catholicism among women. There was movement toward independence from church teachings on birth control and abortion. There was increased interest in lay involvement in issues related to parish life and to the role of women in the church.

In 1999, about 40 percent of men and 50 percent of women surveyed stated that the church was among the most important part of their lives. (See Table 8.) Although the 40 percent for men was basically a stable figure from 1987 to 1999, the 50 percent for women represented a decline. In 1987, about 60 percent of the women affirmed the church’s importance, but by 1993, the percentage dropped to about 50 percent and remained there through the 1990s. Simply put, the church is very important to fewer women than it was 12 years ago, but it is still more important to women than it ever was to men from 1987 to 1999.

Looking only at the data from 1999, we examined it within the age categories of women and men who most likely socialize children at home (ages 25-54). The percentages were even lower. Thirty-three percent of the men and 42 percent of the women asserted the centrality of the church to their lives.

The data on attendance at Mass daily or weekly showed a similar pattern. About 30 percent of men attended Mass at least weekly from 1987 through 1999. Fifty-two percent of the women attended at least weekly in 1987; a percentage that declined to 49 percent by 1993 and 43 percent by 1999. There was a pattern of declining Mass attendance for women, though they still attended more than men ever did. These figures for women may be explained in part given the impediments that work outside the home and children within the home present; however, they still represented a decline since 1987 when women with children at home were in the workforce also.

Focusing on the 25- to 54-year-old respondents in 1999, we found that 28 percent of the men attended Mass at least weekly; that percentage was very close to the attendance for men of all ages over time. Among women in the 25- to 54-year age range, 35 percent were weekly attendees; they attended less than women of all ages.

Another indicator of commitment, that is, “Would you ever leave the church?” showed a decrease in those stating that they never would. In 1987, 62 percent of the men said they would never leave; the percentage declined to 57 percent by 1993 and remained there through the 1990s. A more dramatic decline in allegiance was apparent with the women. Sixty-eight percent said that they would never leave in 1987. By 1993, that percentage dropped to 65 percent and by 1999, to 56 percent, slightly lower than the 57 percent statistic for men.

Taken together, the findings on men’s and women’s Mass attendance and the importance of the church in their lives demonstrated a stability for men at the lower end of commitment and a movement of women toward that lower commitment over time. The findings on whether respondents would “ever leave” the church stabilized with over half stating that they never would, though percentages, especially of women, showed marked decline over time. Given that men and women who were between 25 and 54 showed even less commitment than others in 1999, these figures represent trends that are troubling to the church not only now but for what they mean for the future, particularly the trend toward lower commitment to the church among women and for women rearing children.

Between 1987 and 1993, men and women’s support for the church’s teaching on birth control and abortion eroded. (See Table 8.) Regarding birth control, even in 1987, most lay Catholics (over 60 percent of both men and women) thought that individuals could be good Catholics without obeying the church’s birth control teaching. By the 1993 survey, Catholics were even less supportive of proscriptions on contraception. Over 70 percent thought that heeding the church’s official position was not essential, and that percentage basically remained stable in 1999.

Movement away from the church’s position regarding abortion was more dramatic over time for women. In 1987, about two-thirds of the women and about half of the men maintained that “good Catholics” needed to obey the church’s teaching on abortion. By the 1990s, women’s views toward abortion had become more like men’s; only half of both the men and the women thought it essential to adhere to the church’s teaching. Still in 1999, more lay people thought allegiance to the church’s teaching about abortion was more important to being a Catholic than the church’s teaching on birth control.

Clearly, as the decade of the ’90s ends, Catholics have developed their own position on birth control. Only one-fourth of them adhere to the traditional teaching of the church. Also, only 14 percent of the men and 7 percent of the women think that church leaders should have the final say about right and wrong regarding the practice of contraceptive birth control.

There is a great deal of lay cohesion around the birth control issue that was so controversial for American clergy and lay people during the 1970s. As Andrew Greeley suggested in The American Catholic: A Social Portrait (1977), the birth control encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 was a watershed event. In its wake, large numbers of Catholics apparently decided to make their own judgments and to abide by them. That trend is evident in the 1987, 1993 and 1999 surveys.

Conflict over the birth control encyclical in the United States had other outcomes. John Seidler and Katherine Meyer in Conflict and Change in the Catholic Church (1989) claimed that it signaled a new era for the Catholic church in the United States. In the decades preceding the 1960s, the American church seemed apolitical, at least to the laity. Although the church has always been a highly political institution, battles over church policy, moral principles, different kinds of theologies and even constituents seemed to belong in other countries and other ages.

The struggle over birth control demonstrated just how political the American Catholic church could be. Theologians lined themselves up in different philosophical schools with different moral conclusions, and they presented different moral norms for the bishops to consider and choose. Laity developed pressure groups and supported different theologies. Some church members simply refused to obey the official teaching. Groups not affiliated with the church became involved. For example, NCR (Jan. 8, 1969) reported on the statement of the 2,600 scientists of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who said the encyclical was immoral. The birth control issue made evident that the American church was an arena for open political conflict in the late 1960s and 1970s. The church’s official teaching on abortion more recently brought that issue directly into the public arena.

The birth control conflict coincided with a new recognition of pluralism within the church, a pluralism always there but masked by the single-mindedness that followed Vatican Council I (1869-1870) into the latter part of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. Also, it coincided with the greater education of Catholics (Greeley, 1977), which increased the likelihood that they would consider multiple ways of drawing conclusions about morality. The controversy demonstrated that many Catholics did embrace a new mode of thinking. Instead of accepting moral principles that church leaders developed deductively, many became more attuned to incorporating the contemporary experience of those living the Christian life along with insights from Bible study and historical analysis of the traditions of the church.

Regarding abortion, the 1987, 1993 and 1999 surveys demonstrate the continuation of pluralistic views and increasing independence from official church teaching. The pluralistic views and increasing independence are evident in the almost 50-50 split of Catholics in the 1990s on whether or not good Catholics need to adhere to the church’s position. They are reflected in the 1999 statistics showing that only 22 percent of men and 18 percent of women think that church leaders should have the final say about whether or not Catholics can advocate free choice regarding abortion.

It remains to be seen in the next century if women’s thinking will continue to shift away from official teachings on abortion and if men’s positions will retain the stability that they have shown over the past 12 years. In any case, there does not seem to be any evidence that debates over the morality of abortion will exit the political arena of the U.S. Catholic church, even though birth control teachings appear largely uncontested but disregarded by the laity.

Both men and women also showed an increasing interest in participative decision-making over time. (See Table 8.) Between 1987 and the 1990s, respondents increasingly thought that the laity should be involved in selecting priests for their parishes and in decisions about ordaining women. Although only slightly over half of both genders favored lay involvement in priest selection in 1987, three-fourths held that opinion by 1993, a percentage which stabilized through the 1990s.

More than 60 percent of both women and men thought that lay involvement in decisions about ordaining women was important in the 1990 surveys. That was an increase of about 10 percent for men and an even more dramatic increase of close to 20 percent for women. If we consider the support for more participation in decisions regarding ministers alongside the consistent, very high support at all time periods for deciding how parish income is spent noted by D’Antonio in his article, it is clear that both men and women think that the Catholic laity should be consulted more on issues affecting parish life throughout the 1990s.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999