By Michael Hornsby-Smith
From Roman Catholics in England
Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987. pp. 108-114.

Published on our website with the author’s permission

In this section some of the recent evidence relating to the attitudes of English Catholics to different aspects of marriage and family life and, in particular, to their views on the controversial issues of contraception, abortion and divorce, will be reviewed. In the surveys in the four parishes we have comparable data for Catholic and non- Catholic electors as well as parish activists. The national survey data will summarise the views of a representative sample of English Catholics at the end of the 1970s. Both these surveys indicated that the attitudes of active Catholics differed markedly from Catholics generally and this will be demonstrated in particular from the follow-up survey of delegates to the N.P.C.

In the first of a planned annual series of studies which aimed to chart changes in British social values during the 1980s, a number of attitudes to sexual relationships, divorce, abortion and contraception have been compared for different religious groups in Great Britain. In general terms it was reported that people with a religious affiliation were less tolerant of homosexual relationships, divorce and legal abortion. When considering seven different circumstances in which abortion might be legalised, Roman Catholics were more resistant than other religious groups.

Interestingly, however, even among Roman Catholics, around a quarter support legal abortion for each of the reasons of preference, and at least 70 per cent support it if the mother’s health is endangered or if the pregnancy has resulted from rape,(jowell and Airey, 1984: 141. See also 136-43, >54-6)

On the whole, in the tabulations so far available, Roman Catholics appeared to differ little from the general population in their attitudes to premarital or extramarital sexual relationships by either the husband or the wife.

In general terms these recent findings confirm the results of opinion poll data relating not only to the general population but also to professional groups such as doctors and nurses, that while Catholics generally expressed more restrictive attitudes towards abortion than other groups, nevertheless a substantial minority reported that ‘they do not have a conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy in virtually all cases’ (Cheetham, 1976).

Table 5.6 Attitudes of Catholic and non-Catholic electors on marital and sexual matters, % agreement (Four Parishes, weighted average)










Divorce should be readily available where one partner considers the marriage has broken down.





It is a good thing that abortion is available legally for those women who want one.





World overpopulation is the biggest moral problem of our time.





Pornography is a major evil in our society.*





A husband or wife should always be able to get a divorce if their partner commits adultery.





Religious leaders should speak out on questions of sexual morality.*




N = 100% (unweighted)




* Data for three parishes only; question not asked in the London commuter parish

5.4.1 Catholic and non-Catholic electors

It was reported above in section 3.4 that significant differences between Catholic and non-Catholic electors in the study of four parishes only emerged in the attitudes related to sexual morality ‘with the salience of a rational humanistic orientation to sexual matters being weaker for the Catholic group’ (Hornsby-Smith, 1978c: 13). For the four parishes considered, weighted averages of the levels of agreement with six questions on marital and sexual matters have been given in table 5.6 for Catholic activists and electors and non-Catholic electors. It can be seen that on divorce, overpopulation (a proxy for attitudes to contraception; at this early stage of our research the S.S.R.C. advised us not to address the question of birth control directly), pornography and the salience of religious leadership on sexual matters, non-Catholic electors were up to one-third more likely to agree with a ‘liberal’ position than Catholic electors. On the matter of abortion, however, the Catholic position was more clearly distinct; non-Catholic electors were nearly twice as likely as Catholic electors to approve of legal abortion. Comparisons between Catholic electors and parish activists showed clearly that the latter were far more orthodox in their responses to all six questions, particularly on the matters of divorce and abortion where under one in ten agreed with a ‘liberal’ position.

5.4.2 The national survey

The attitudes of the nationally representative sample of English Catholics on a wide range of social and moral issues were reported in Roman Catholic Opinion (Hornsby-Smith and Lee, 1979: 52-3, 192). Overall, three-quarters of the respondents (but three-fifths of weekly Mass attenders and over four-fifths of the under 25s) agreed with the statement ‘a married couple who feel they have as many children as they want are not doing anything wrong when they use artificial methods of birth control’. On two separate statements on divorce, one suggesting that ‘two people in love do not do anything wrong when they marry even though one of them has been divorced’ and the other that ‘Catholics should be allowed to divorce’ there was agreement from nearly two-thirds of English Catholics in spite of the strong and traditional prohibitions. On the other hand, two-thirds of Catholics agreed with the statement ‘except where the life of the mother is at risk, abortion is wrong’ (though one-quarter disagreed). A majority of Catholics thought that ‘the Church can never, in practice, approve the homosexual act’ but only 44% agreed with the statement ‘if a person in his right mind is suffering from a painful disease which can’t be cured and he wants to die, termination of life should be permitted’. Finally, only one-third of Catholics considered ‘it is wrong for an engaged couple to have sexual intercourse before they are married’. On all these items the under 25s and those who had not attended Mass for over a year were consistently more critical of the official teaching than older age groups but social class differences varied. Lower-working-class respondents were more favourable towards divorce than professional and managerial respondents but were less likely to take a ‘liberal’ position on contraception or homosexuality.

5.4.3 Congress delegates

A number of attitude questions used in the Roman Catholic Opinion study were also asked in the survey of delegates to the N.P.C. The results showed that:

on social and moral issues …the Congress delegates were far more orthodox or traditional than Roman Catholics generally, for example in their attitudes to divorce, contraception, premarital sex, euthanasia, abortion … On contraception and divorce priests and female religious were more orthodox than lay delegates but there were no differences between the three delegate groups (priests, religious and laity) on abortion and euthanasia. Occupational differences were generally not significant … though teacher delegates were unexpectedly more orthodox on divorce … than other groups. Sex differences were slight … though housewives were more traditional on divorce … than other women who were much less likely to condemn premarital sex. (Hornsby-Smith and Cordingley, 1983: 13, 49-51)

5.4.4 Catholic practice: contraception and abortion

In his study of changing Catholic attitudes to and practice of contraception, Spencer reported that the Lewis-Faning study of 1947-8 for the Royal Commission on Population and the Population Investigation Committee’s Marriage Survey of 1959-60 as well as a number of other studies had all found evidence that the practice of contraception was widespread. He reported that

The review of British Catholics’ attitudes towards, and practice of, fertility control shows clearly that Catholics use various contraceptive measures on a large scale, that they are doing so increasingly but still lag behind their fellow citizens in this respect. (Spencer, 1966b)

In the study of the family intentions of a large probability sample of women in England and Wales who had been married once only and were under the age of 45 in 1967, it was reported that the ‘safe period’ was used more frequently by Catholic couples (31% where both partners were Catholics, 17% where the wife only was a Catholic and 15% where the husband only was a Catholic compared to 11% of all groups). However, a greater proportion of Catholics (39%) used withdrawal as a contraceptive technique (Woolf, 1971: 4-5, 83, 86). In a follow-up study five years later it was reported that

when a method of contraception was used by couples in which only one partner was Catholic, it was more likely to be a reliable method if the Catholic partner was the wife rather than the husband … The use of less reliable methods of contraception, or none at all, was proportionately greater for couples in which both husband and wife were Catholic … (Woolf and Pegden, 1976: 116, 133)

Similarly, in her study offamily size and family spacing in England and Wales in 1973, Cartwright reported that

The differences between Catholic and other mothers in their current use of birth control methods were relatively small. Rather more of the Catholics were not using any method of birth control, 18% compared with 9%, more of them relied on the safe period, 4% against 1%; and fewer of their husbands had been sterilized, 1% compared with 4%. There were the significant differences in their current use of the pill, coil, withdrawal, and female sterilization … Fewer Catholics had ever taken the pill – 57% against 68% (Protestants), and fewer had used the sheath – 58% against 72%. (Cartwright, 1976: 45-6)

The same study also reported that the proportion of mothers who had considered abortion when they found they were unintentionally pregnant did not vary to any significant extent with the mothers’ religion (Cartwright, 1976: 69-71). In sum, the evidence seems to indicate clearly that Catholic practice, like Catholic attitudes, while still significantly different from that of the population as a whole, has nevertheless in recent years converged rapidly towards the national norms.

5.4.5 Marital breakdown among Catholics

The national survey of Roman Catholics reported that the proportion of Catholics who were currently divorced was similar to that estimated for the population as a whole by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (O.P.C.S.) This finding was supported by the study of the recently divorced undertaken at the Marriage Research Centre (Thornes and Collard, 1979: 53) so that ‘it seems possible to suggest that, overall, Catholics are not any less prone to divorce than members of the population at large’ (Hornsby-Smith and Lee, 1979:117). A comparison of those ever divorced with those never divorced showed that women and lower-social-class respondents were disproportionately found among the divorced who were also rather more likely to have had an unhappy childhood and to report that they had not been close to either parent (Hornsby-Smith and Lee, 1979: 242-4)

A recent American study has indicated that intermarriage represents both the greatest single source of conversion to Catholicism and the greatest source of disidentification (Hoge, 1981: 72). The relevance of this for English Catholicism can be seen in our data. Only two-fifths of Catholics were in marriages where both partners were born Catholics. One-fifth were in marriages where at least one partner was a convert and over two-fifths were in mixed marriages. The proportion of ever divorced or separated was 6% among all-Catholic marriages but 12% among those in mixed marriages.

Further analyses of these data in terms of the marriage type of the respondent indicates, however, that while 5% of the four valid marriage types had ever been divorced or separated, one-quarter of those in invalid marriages had been. Expressed differently, whereas under one in six Catholics ever married were in invalid marriages (im), three-fifths of the divorced and remarried and nearly one-third of the divorced and separated groups were. These results strongly suggest that the widely reported finding that mixed or interfaith marriages are more likely to break down (Bumpass and Sweet, 1972) needs to be qualified. In the case of these English Catholics in the late 1970s, marital breakdown was concentrated among those in invalid marriages; those in valid mixed marriages were no more likely to experience breakdown than those in the three types of religiously homogeneous marriage (bb, cb and bc).

In a recent study of the data from the national survey, the relationship between three demographic variables (age, sex and terminal education age) and four socio-religious background variables (the religiosity of both parents, the happiness of the respondent’s childhood and their involvement in the Catholic subculture at this time), the time of any lapsation from religious practice relative to marriage, the type of marriage entered and marital breakdown were explored further. The results showed that marital breakdown among English Catholics was chiefly influenced by early lapsation from the practice norms of the Church and by the type of marriage entered, which was itself significantly associated with the timing of any lapsation. In sum, early lapsation was related to invalid marriage which in turn was related to higher marital breakdown. There did not appear to be any direct relationships between marital breakdown and either the demographic or socio-religious background variables.

Both the timing of any lapsation relative to marriage and the type of marriage entered were also strongly related to all the socio-religious outcome variables considered: the respondent’s type of Catholicism, communal involvement, religious commitment and unity orientation (Hornsby-Smith, Turcan and Rajan, 1985).

One sign of the growing concern for the scale of marital breakdown among Catholics and the need to promote the pastoral care of divorced Catholics has been the recent proliferation of groups affiliated to the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics, which was started in Manchester in 1981 with the support of the Bishop of Salford. Another indicator is the programme to provide support at the parish level for marriages, especially in the early years. This programme was started by a group of priests mainly in the south-east of England in 1980. It remains to be seen what effects these initiatives will have on the rates of marital breakdown among Catholics. What they do show, however, is a greater degree of openness in recognising the scale of the phenomenon and a greater willingness by the institutional Church to search for pastoral responses which meet the needs of the people concerned while continuing to stress the traditional Christian belief in life-long marriage.

It may be that when considering such developments within the Catholic community, the distinction needs to be made between support primarily for (a) the maintenance of the marital bond and (b) the individuals concerned in vulnerable or disintegrating marital relationships. The distinction is important. To stress the former would be to endeavour to maintain the institutional norms of permanent marriage and to suppress the formal and overt recognition of marital breakdown, while the latter would put the primary emphasis on pastoral support for the individual in a situation of marital breakdown, regardless of whether or not such breakdown became overt and formally acknowledged by divorce or separation. Clearly a great deal of research needs to be undertaken on this matter; at the time of writing such research is still very much in its infancy.

5.5 Conclusion

In this chapter we have reviewed some empirical evidence relating to the patterns of marriage formation and breakdown and sexual morality norms of the English Catholic community in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In every respect the evidence leads to the conclusion that by the end of the 1970s there had been a breakdown in the defences surrounding the Catholic community so that it no longer made sense to regard it as having a distinctive subculture protected by endogamous marriage, its own norms of sexual and familial morality internalised through the interlinked nexus of socialising agencies of family, school and parish, led by a powerful clergy with recognised authority and an imposing array of social and religious sanctions to enforce compliance. The social changes since the Second World War dissolved many of the barriers to social interaction with the rest of the population and led to a convergence on social and moral issues, and the religious changes legitimated by the Second Vatican Council led gradually to a decline in the hostility between different socio-religious groups. The net effect can be seen in the evidence we have reviewed of a considerable degree of heterogeneity in terms of religious attitudes, sexual morality and marital behaviour, a significant increase in the proportions of both mixed and invalid marriages, especially since the 1960s, and a corresponding decline in the rates of religious practice and an increase in the divorce rates.

As has been mentioned in chapter 2, between one-fifth and one-quarter of English Catholics are either first- or second- generation Irish immigrants. In the following chapter, the interaction between their patterns of social and geographical mobility and their patterns of marriage formation will be considered and the contribution which intermarriage makes to religious and social assimilation to the norms of British society evaluated.