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British Catholics and Family Morality: The times they are a-changin’

British Catholics and Family Morality: The times they are a-changin’

Julie Clague


Thirty five years will have elapsed between Synod 2015 and the previous General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops devoted to the family in 1980. In the intervening years, many parts of the Catholic world have witnessed a rapidly changing social landscape in which patterns of marriage and family life have been transformed. Especially among the economically developed nations, marriage rates have declined while cohabitation rates have increased.

In England and Wales, for instance, between 1980 and 2010, the general marriage rate (the number of marriages among every 1,000 unmarried men or women aged 16 and over) fell from 60 to 22 for men and from 48 to 20 for women.[1] At the time of the Second Vatican Council cohabitation was a rare phenomenon in Britain. Just three per cent of those marrying at ages below 30 lived with their prospective partner prior to marriage. By the time of the 1980 Synod on the family, three in ten of those marrying cohabited with their partner prior to marriage. Today, around eight in ten of those marrying for the first time live together beforehand.[2]

Not surprisingly, alongside these behavioural changes there are also corresponding shifts in moral attitudes towards marriage and family life. Statistical studies bring to light trends in changing patterns of belief. Thanks to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, which has collected data about British opinion since 1983, it is possible to trace the moral attitudes of Britons over the last three decades, including those of British Catholics.[3] During this time, the proportion of Britons identifying as Catholic has remained remarkably stable. Catholics currently comprise 9 per cent of the British population of 64 million.[4]

In what follows, trends in British opinion on the questions of premarital, homosexual and extramarital relationships will be examined, as will beliefs about marriage as the most suitable context for child-rearing.[5]

  1. 1.     Premarital sexual relationships


In 1983, 28 per cent of Britons said it was ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong to have premarital sexual relations. The figure for British Catholics was slightly higher, at 32 per cent. By 2012, the proportion of Britons saying premarital sex is ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong had fallen to 11 per cent. In the same year, the proportion of British Catholics stating that premarital sex is ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong  was also 11 per cent.

  1. 2.     Homosexual relationships

In 1985, the British Social Attitudes Survey asked Britons their view of ‘sexual relations between adults of the same sex’. 69 per cent of Britons answered that such behaviour was ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong. The disapproval rate for British Catholics was 70 per cent. By 2012, attitudes had become more tolerant. The proportion of Britons expressing disapproval at homosexual relationships had fallen to 28 per cent. 47 per cent of Britons expressed the view that homosexual relationships were ‘not wrong at all’. British Catholics were more disapproving: 35 per cent said that homosexual relations were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong.


  1. 3.     Extramarital sexual relationships

Over three decades, the BSA survey has asked Britons their opinion about the acceptability of extramarital sex, defined as ‘a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her partner’. Over this period there have been high levels of disapproval of extramarital sexual relations among the British population as a whole, and among British Catholics, with eight in ten of both groups consistently regarding such behaviour  as ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong. Therefore, despite increasingly liberal attitudes towards non-marital sex in Britain, there remains a high degree of support for the value of marital fidelity.

  1. 4.     Marriage as the most suitable context for child-rearing

Over the last three decades, the proportion of British children born outside marriage has increased sharply. Since 1989, BSA survey participants have been asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that ‘people who want children ought to get married’. In 1989, 70 per cent of Britons agreed with this view, while 17 per cent disagreed. In 2012, 42 per cent of Britons agreed, while 34 per cent disagreed. In 1989, when British Catholics were asked the same question, 83 per cent agreed that people who want children ought to get married. By 2012, the proportion of Catholics agreeing with the statement stood at 68 per cent.


What can we learn from these findings? The first observation is that, over the last three decades, British Catholics and the British population as a whole have become more accepting of premarital sexual relationships, homosexual relationships and couples who have children outside wedlock. However, there remains strong support in Britain for relationships of sexual exclusivity. On the social issues surveyed, Catholics tend not to be as liberal as the wider British population. Nonetheless, the trend for British Catholics follows that of the British population as a whole, which is towards increasing toleration of behaviours previously regarded as socially unacceptable. According to the BSA findings, only a minority of British Catholics hold views on premarital sex and homosexuality that accord with official Church teaching.

Longitudinal studies, such as the BSA survey, offer insight into the changing moral attitudes of Catholics over time. Such studies can offer an important ‘reality check’, especially when religious rules and rhetoric appear unchanging. Such studies can also open the way to larger, comparative studies of Catholic opinion in a variety of regional and national contexts thereby providing valuable data on how Catholic opinion is subject to socio-cultural as well as historical variation. Finally, data gleaned from social scientific studies of Catholic opinion provide a valuable supplement to the responses submitted to the important but unscientific Synod consultation process: responses which remain largely undisclosed and, in any case, unsuitable for thoroughgoing and systematic analysis.


Julie Clague teaches theology and ethics at the University of Glasgow. Julie is the editor of the European Forum of CTEWC.


[1] Office for National Statistics, ‘Marriages in England and Wales, 2010’, 29 February 2012, p. 5.

[2] Éva Beaujouan and Máire Ní Bhrolcháin, ‘Cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s’, Population Trends 145, Office for National Statistics, Autumn 2011, pp. 8-9–145–autumn-2011/index.html

[3] See British Social Attitudes 31, London: NatCen Social Research, 2014

[4] Park, A., Bryson, C., Clery, E., Curtice, J. and Phillips, M. (eds.), British Social Attitudes: the 30th Report, London: NatCen Social Research, 2013, p. 5

[5] The data, graphs and downloadable data charts for the issues discussed in this section are all available at the website of British Social Attitudes 31, London: NatCen Social Research, 2014: