By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Most U.S. Catholics think the church should focus more on social justice and helping the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion, according to a poll released Monday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
The 2012 American Values Survey finding on Catholics goes against the focus of many U.S. Catholic bishops, who have stressed the church's ban on abortion and artificial contraception in their public policy statements.
The poll found that 60 percent of Catholics want a greater focus on social justice issues rather than abortion, while 31 percent support the opposite approach.
The divide was true even among Catholics who attend church once a week or more, a group often considered more socially conservative. A slim majority of this group, 51 percent, thought the church should focus more on social justice issues.
"The survey confirms that there is no such thing as the ‘Catholic vote,'" said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the institute and co-author of the report. The survey included more than 3,000 respondents. "There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between ‘social justice' and `right to life' Catholics."
U.S. bishops strongly oppose same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. They specifically oppose the mandate in the U.S. 2010 health care overhaul which requires hospitals, universities and other institutions to provide insurance that covers artificial birth control, which is against Catholic teachings.
The survey also found that among Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, 57 percent support a prison sentence of life without parole as opposed to the death penalty.
This was also true among Catholic conservatives, who supported life without parole over the death penalty by 51 percent to 44 percent, compared to non-Catholic conservatives, who favor the death penalty.
"The church has clearly had a real impact on Catholic attitudes toward the death penalty, particularly among conservative Catholics," said E. J. Dionne, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the report, speaking at a press event Monday morning.
He noted that Catholics who are more conservative on the abortion issue are more "liberal" on the death penalty.
The religiously unaffiliated is the fastest growing group in the country's religious landscape, comprising 1 in 5 Americans and more than doubling in size since 1990, the survey found.
The majority were raised in a particular faith, and their reasons for leaving range from a fading belief in God to negative personal experiences with religion.
Regarding political preferences, the religiously unaffiliated, Hispanic Catholics, non-Christians and black Protestants were more likely to support President Barack Obama.
Nearly 8 in 10 likely supporters of Republican contender Mitt Romney identified themselves as white Christians, including 37 percent who said they were white evangelicals, 19 percent who identified as white mainline Protestants and 19 percent who identified as white Catholics.
Support for Obama among the religiously unaffiliated was high, at 73 percent, but this group was less likely to say they were certain to vote, compared to religiously affiliated Americans.
"We are not feeling the full force of their presence at the ballot box," said Jones.
A third of religiously unaffiliated Americans were ages 18-29, the study found. People in this age group were also more likely to support Obama, at 70 percent.
If younger voters continue to vote Democratic, as they have in recent elections, they could represent the "replacement generation" for the old "New Deal" generation of Democratic voters who grew up in the 1930s, Dionne said.
The survey was taken between September 13 and September 30, before the presidential debates, and involved 3,003 respondents, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)