American Catholics who are highly religious are most likely to report being “very happy” with their lives, satisfied with their family life, and frequently attending family gatherings, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.
Catholics who are highly religious—meaning that they report praying daily and attend religious services at least once a week—are also are more than twice as likely as the average Catholic to look to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Bible, and the pope for guidance on difficult moral questions, according to the study, called “Religion in Everyday Life.”
The report examines the personal, family, and social habits of more than 35,000 Americans across a wide range of faiths and denominations, including non-Christians and those who are religiously unaffiliated. Survey respondents were asked questions ranging from what they believe are the essentials of their faith, to whether they had told a white lie in the last week, to whether they recycle.
Of the Catholics surveyed, 31 percent fall into the category of “highly religious”, according to Pew’s senior researcher Dr. Besheer Mohamed. This percentage aligns closely with the 30 percent of Christians in general who are highly religious, a proportion that has declined in the past decades.
“Both attendance at religious services and prayer frequency have declined in recent years among the U.S. public as a whole,” said Mohamed. “However, among Catholics and others who are affiliated with a religion, levels of worship attendance and personal prayer have both been steady since 2007.”
Highly religious Catholics differ noticeably from the average Catholic in where they seek advice.
While only 21 percent of all Catholics look to the Church’s teachings for guidance on difficult moral questions, 44 percent of highly religious Catholics do. Highly religious Catholics are more than twice as likely as the average Catholic to seek guidance from the Bible (35 percent vs. 15 percent) or the pope (29 percent vs. 11 percent).
But highly religious Catholics are not distinctive in all respects.
They are no more attentive to their health than are the rest of poll respondents, and they are less likely than all highly religious Christians to discuss religion with their families and friends. And they are just as or slightly more likely as their less-religious brethren to report telling a white lie, or losing their temper in the past week.
While 44 percent of all Catholics said they told a white lie in the past week, highly religious Catholics reported doing so at the same rate. And highly religious Catholics are more likely to report having lost their temper recently, with 47 percent reporting that they had done so, versus 43 percent of all Catholics.
This may be because highly religious people are more accustomed to confessing their shortcomings than non-religious people are, according to Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman, a professor of sociology at Boston University who helped advise the Pew study.
“When people are active in religious communities they engage in rituals of confession. It’s not true of everyone, but especially true of Catholics. They look into their lives and ask, ‘what have I not done well this week?’” Ammerman said. “People who are not in religious communities don’t have anything like that.”
Out of all Christian denominations, highly religious Catholics are the most likely group to have not exercised in the past week (34 percent), despite being most likely to report being “very satisfied” with their health (57 percent).
This lack of correlation is not necessarily the result of a misconception about one’s health, Mohamed cautioned.
“Eating right and exercising are only two of the many things people may consider when assessing their health,” he said. “For example, our survey also finds that four in ten highly religious Catholics say they meditated to cope with stress in the last week, more than the 28 percent of less religious Catholics, or 30 percent of the general public that do this.”
The disconnect between satisfaction and exercise may also be because highly religious people are overall more content with their lives, according to Dr. Christopher Ellison of the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“Satisfaction with health may speak as much to satisfaction as to health,” said Ellison.
“It may not be a reflection of the quality or the degree to which people are physically healthy in a medical sense,” he said, “but it may reflect the fact that these are people who are at least in part more inclined to be satisfied with their life across a whole host of domains.”
Kaitlyn Landgraf is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and Yale University. She writes from northern California.