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Catholics in Britain and attitudes towards the ordination of women

Ben Clements

The issue of women being able to be ordained as clergy has been an important area of debate within some religious traditions, most recently seen in the Church of England’s decision to allow women to become bishops, and can be situated within broader debates over gender equality in society. Polling undertaken at the time showed that the British public in general were very supportive of women bishops within the Church of England.

In relation to the views of Catholics in Britain, some earlier surveys gauged their views of women clergy. In the 1979 Now! Religion Survey, 47% of Catholics took the view that women should be able to join the clergy, much lower than the 85% support expressed by those who identified as Church of England. In the 1978 Roman Catholic Opinion study (a survey of the Catholic community in England and Wales), 61% were opposed to women priests as a reform to address the shortage of priests, with 25% accepting this and 14% unsure.

Over subsequent decades, Catholics’ views on gender roles in society have changed markedly, becoming more liberal. This is shown in Figure 1, based on data from the long-running British Social Attitudes surveys. Whereas 47% of Catholics in 1983 agreed that a husband’s role is to earn money and a wife’s role is to look after the home and family, that had fallen to 11% in 2017. The proportion of Catholics disagreeing with this statement rose from 42% to 76% across the same period.

Figure 1 Attitudes towards gender roles, Catholics in Britain, 1984-2017
Source: Compiled from the British Social Attitudes Information System.
Question: ‘Do you agree or disagree that … a husband’s job is to earn money; a wife’s job is to look after the home and family?’

We can use our new survey of Catholics in Britain to answer the following question: which Catholics are more supportive of allowing women to be ordained as priests in their faith? The survey was administered online by Savanta ComRes in late October and November 2019 to a nationally representative (in terms of age, sex and region) sample of British Catholics (aged 18 and over). Catholics were identified by use of a standard screening question: ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?’

Using and extending questions that were sourced from the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Catholics and Family Life survey, undertaken in the US, the survey asked Catholics in Britain the following:

Do you think the Catholic Church should or should not:

Allow priests to get married

Allow already-married men to become priests

Allow women to become priests

The overall distribution of responses to these issues concerning the priesthood are shown in Figure 2. There is a similar pattern of responses for all three: in each case, around two-thirds of Catholics are supportive of reforms, saying that the Church should allow priests to get married and should expand the priesthood to married men and to women. The proportions opposed were broadly similar, ranging between 17-21%, with the reminder unsure of their view. Results from the Pew Research Center survey showed that 59% of Catholics in the US supported women becoming priests and 62% backed priests being able to marry. Other recent research on the views of Catholics in the US has also shown that a majority were in favour of women being allowed to take on the role of priest.

Figure 2 Attitudes towards expanding access to the priesthood

Clearly, then, Catholics in Britain are very in favour of the Catholic Church making these reforms and their specific views on women clergy have shifted over time, being more supportive compared to findings from some earlier studies. Do their contemporary attitudes vary based on socio-demographic factors or how they engage with their faith?

Figure 3 shows the level of support across different socio-demographic groups, comparing the views of women and men, generational groups[i], and on the basis of educational attainment and where Catholics live. Across all groups, majorities express support for women becoming priests and variation in opinion is quite limited. Catholics in the Vatican II generation are least supportive (58%) compared to the other groups – Post-Vatican II, Millennials and Generation Z (68-69%). Women are slightly more supportive than men, 68% versus 61%, while views are broadly similar based on education and whether Catholics live in England and Wales or Scotland (represented by separate bishops’ conferences).

Figure 3 Percentage saying women should be allowed to become priests, by socio-demographic group

Do attitudes on this issue differ based on Catholics’ involvement with and the personal importance of, their faith? Figure 4 shows the level of support for two common indicators of religious activity (frequency of Mass attendance and prayer) and two indicators of religious salience (general religiosity and how important the Catholic Church is). Again, majorities in each group express support for women priests, but there is a common pattern based on these indicators of activity and salience. The highest levels of approval for women priests are found amongst Catholics who are less involved in their faith or feel it is less important in their lives. Amongst those who seldom or never attend Mass (apart from on special occasions, 72% approve of women priests compared to 56% of frequent attenders. In the US, the Pew Research Center survey found that Catholics who attended Mass at least weekly were much less supportive of women as priests. Similarly, while 61% of those who pray more frequently (weekly of more often) support expanding the priesthood in this way, this increased to 71% and 74%, respectively, of Catholics who pray less often and those who rarely or never pray.

The two measures of salience show that, for those Catholics who say they are very religious or that the Catholic Church is very important in their daily lives, support for women priests is clearly lower. Of those for whom the Church is the most important part or amongst the most important parts of their life, 53% approve compared to 77% of who say that the Church is among the least important parts or not an important part. Of those who are generally not very religious, 73% give their backing to expanding the priesthood to women, which falls to 59% of those who see themselves as very religious.

Figure 4 Percentage saying women should be allowed to become priests, by religious activity and salience

We can also see whether views on this issue differ based on Catholics’ religious beliefs. Figure 5 shows the level of support for women priests based on Catholics’ belief in God. Interestingly, the lowests level of support – but still the majority view – are seen amongst those who do not believe in God (57%) and those who express a very firm belief in God (54%). Those Catholics expressing a less certain or a more qualified sense of belief register higher levels of support (between 68-76%).

Figure 5 Percentage saying women should be allowed to become priests, by belief in God

Overall, the findings from this new survey of Catholics in Britain shows that they are generally very supportive of reforms to the priesthood, including enabling women to become priests. Majority support for women priests holds up across a range of groups within the Catholic community, whether based on socio-demographic characteristics or levels of religious activity and salience. However, there is some variation in attitudes, with Catholics most closely engaged in their faith usually registering lower levels of support for women priests.

[i] Based on the categorisation used for Catholics in the US by 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.