Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The percentage of sermons about abortion is in the single digits, according to a Pew Research Center study, the results of which were released April 29.

Even a mention of abortion in a sermon is rare, according to the study.

Pew analyzed nearly 50,000 sermons shared online or livestreamed by more than 6,000 U.S. churches and delivered between April 7 and June 1, 2019, a time frame that included Easter.

Five percent of Catholic homilies analyzed during the study period mentioned abortion, which topped the national average of 4%. Other Christians were grouped into “mainline Protestant,” “evangelical Protestant” and “historically black Protestant.”

Nineteen percent of Catholic congregations heard abortion mentioned in at least one sermon during the study period, which matched the national average. Evangelicals led the way with 22%, with mainline Protestants trailing at 10%.

The percentage of Catholics hearing about abortion may be surprising, according to Dennis Quinn, the lead researcher for the study. The median length of Catholic homilies was 14 minutes — but 37 minutes for all sermons, with black Protestants topping out at 54 minutes.

“If you talk about 17 things in the same sermon, you have a greater chance” of mentioning abortion, Quinn told Catholic News Service in an April 28 phone interview.

Moreover, the study found, abortion is more likely to be mentioned in sermons to smaller congregations. Catholic Masses tend to draw sizable congregations. Pew found 23% of smaller Catholic congregations — 200 or less — hearing an abortion reference in a sermon, compared to 18% of a larger assembly.

The study also identified words used disproportionately by each faith group’s clergy when abortion is mentioned relative to sermons that don’t touch on abortion.

Catholic clergy used “abortion,” which was also used by their evangelical and black counterparts — but, incredibly, did not make the mainline Protestant list of words.

The other nine words in Catholic homilies were not used in any other faith group’s sermons: “pro-life,” “audio,” “triple,” “trend,” “good Catholic,” “Church teaching,” “transcendent,” “great question” — and “eso,” the Spanish word for “this.” Researchers, in a study footnote, said it may be a transcribing error due to the relatively small number of Spanish Masses that were included in an otherwise all-English language study.

Sermons referencing abortion mentioned specific books of the Old Testament than in other sermons, by 72%-60%. New Testament references, Pew found, are roughly the same percentage regardless, although they are mentioned less frequently overall. 

Quinn said Catholics and mainline Protestants had a 40-point gap between Old and New Testament references for those sermons that mentioned abortion.

He told CNS the study did not take into account the physical location of the churches, and whether abortion might have been the subject of a policy battle during the study period.

The study on the frequency of abortion references in sermons is taken from the same group of sermons that were the focus of a Pew report in December, “The Digital Pulpit.”

Given that nearly all sermons are being delivered online during the coronavirus pandemic, Quinn said he did not know whether any subsequent study would account for this new reality.

Pew used computational tools such as Google Places to find church websites, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website, to help find abortion references in 250-word sermon segments, because, as the study said, “whole sermons are generally too long for an individual worker to read in one sitting.”