By Ben Clements and Stephen Bullivant
[Image note: Visit of Pope Benedict XVI: A peaceful march of religious communities, welcome the Pope on his historic visit to the UK]
How do the generational experiences of Catholics in Britain affect their views on core social issues? Is there anything resembling a consistent patterning of generational opinion across moral debates? We have undertaken a new wide-ranging survey of self-identified Catholic adults living in Britain as part of a research project called ‘Roman Catholic in Britain: Faith, Society and Politics’ funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Existing research has already shown how, in Britain, Catholics’ views on these issues have liberalised over recent decades. Our survey allows us to assess the demographic and religious patterns in contemporary Catholic attitudes. We find that generational group is an important differentiator of opinion on some key social debates.
We used a set of generations that is specifically Catholic, developed in the research of D’Antonio et al., who have studied the experiences and views of the Catholic community in the US across recent decades. This provides a five-fold classification: Pre-Vatican (born up to 1940; Vatican II (1941-60); Post-Vatican II (1961-79); Millennial (1980-96); and Generation Z (1997 onwards). Comparing the Vatican II group through to the Generation Z group, we look at views on same-sex rights, euthanasia, preferences for reform of Catholic Church teachings, and attitudes towards what is sinful behaviour or not.
Results for attitudes on same-sex rights (Figure 1) show that young people who are part of Generation Z have the most liberal views on these issues, while the Vatican II group shows least support for same-sex relationships, marriage, and adoption. For example, on the issue of allowing same-sex couples to adopt, 73% of Generation Z express approval, declining to 56% of Millennials, 49% of the Post-Vatican II group, and lowest at 38% of the Vatican II group.
Figure 1 Catholics’ views of same-sex rights, by generational group
On euthanasia, with responses towards three hypothetical scenarios shown in Figure 2, the groups cluster together in their views in two of the cases: between 69-74% support a doctor being allowed lawfully to end a patient’s life if they have a painful and incurable disease from which they will die; while 50-54% back this in the case of a person who is not in much pain nor in danger of death, but becomes permanently and completely dependent on relatives for all of their needs. In the scenario of a person with an incurable and painful illness from which they will not die, there is more variation in approval: standing at 52% and 49%, respectively, of Millennials and Generation Z, and lower amongst both the Vatican II (34%) and Post-Vatican II (39%) groups.
Figure 2 Catholics’ views of euthanasia, by generational group
Responses to more detailed sets of questions focused specifically on teachings and debates within the Catholic Church are shown in Figures 3 and 4. Figure 3 shows the level of support across the four generational groups for reform of key teachings within the Catholic Church. The most pronounced difference of opinion concerns whether the Catholic Church should recognise the marriage of same-sex couples: 78% of those in Generation Z think this should be allowed, while just 43% of those in the Vatican II group express this view (in the other two groups, around three-fifths are supportive). For all other questions, the differences in view across groups are of lesser magnitude. While the Vatican II group is least in favour of women priests (59%), this is not the case for the other reforms. On the issues of allowing priests to get married and enabling married men to become priests, all groups are strongly in support, but backing is highest amongst the Vatican II group (at 72% in both cases). Similarly, when asked about receiving communion in, firstly, the case of divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment and, secondly, Catholics who live with a partner without being married, support is very high across the board – and is highest in the Vatican II group for the former, and in the Vatican II and Post-Vatican groups for the latter. There is also preponderant support for allowing Catholics to use birth control (ranging from by 88% of the Vatican II group through to 73% of Millennials).
Figure 3 Catholics’ views of reform of church teachings, by generational group
When asked about which behaviours are sinful or not (shown in Figure 4), there is a mixed pattern of opinion across groups. Those in Generation Z are most likely to say that abortion (54%) and homosexual behaviors are not sins (67%). On obtaining a divorce and using contraceptives, while the view that these are not sinful is the preponderant one across all groups, it is highest amongst the Vatican II and Post-Vatican II groups. Those belonging to the Post-Vatican II generation are most likely to adopt the position that remarriage after a divorce without first getting an annulment is not sinful (60%), while they (61%), along with Generation Z (58%), are also more likely to consider being in a sexual relationship outside of marriage as not being sinful.
Figure 4 Catholics’ views of sinful behaviours, by generational group
To return to the questions with which we started, is it clear that, amongst Catholics in Britain, there is a variegated pattern to intergenerational opinion on social-moral debates. Generation Z are most liberal on the specific issues of abortion and same-sex rights – but, on other questions, the groups’ views tend to cluster together (for some scenarios concerning the use of euthanasia, for example), and older generations registered a more tolerant standpoint on divorce. More broadly, there is often strong support across the generations for positions contrary to established church teachings, and often considerable proportions do not think that specific activities or behaviours the church believes are sinful actually are.
Ben Clements is Associate Professor, School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His recent publications include Religion and Public Opinion in Britain: Continuity and Change (2015) and Surveying Christian Beliefs and Religious Debates in Post-War Britain (2016). He is co-convenor of the Politics and Religion specialist group (within the UK Political Studies Association) and a member of the project board for British Religion in Numbers.
Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion and Director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, St Mary’s University. His recent publications include Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (2019), Why Catholics Leave, What They Miss, and How They Might Return (2019; with C. Knowles, H. Vaughan-Spruce, and B. Durcan), The Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (2016; with L. Lee) and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2016; with M. Ruse).
 The survey was administered online by Savanta ComRes in October-November 2019 to a nationally representative (in terms of age, sex and region) sample of British Catholics (living in England, Wales or Scotland). Catholics were identified by use of a standard screening question: ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?’ For further information and to see other findings, please visit the project website at: https://catholicsinbritain.le.ac.uk. The sets of questions analysed in this post were sourced from the long-running British Social Attitudes surveys (the focus of Figures 1 and 2) and from the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Survey of US Catholics and Family Life (the focus of Figures 3-4).
 Based on the categorisation provided in the Appendix in D’Antonio et al. (2013), the generational groups were classified as follows: Pre-Vatican: aged 79 and over (born up to 1940); Vatican II: aged 59-78 (1941-1960); Post-Vatican II: aged 40-58 (1961-1979); Millennial: aged 23-39 (1980-1996); Generation Z: aged 18 to 22 (born from 1997 onwards). As the Pre-Vatican group constituted a very small proportion of the survey sample, it is not included in the analyses reported here.