By Mary Wisniewski

(Reuters) - Most U.S. Catholics believe the church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to support the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion, according to a new 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 been stressing the church's ban on abortion and artificial contraception in public policy statements. The poll found that 60 percent of Catholics believe in a greater focus on social justice issues rather than abortion, while 31 percent say the opposite.

The divide was true even among Catholics who attend church once a week or more, a group that is often considered more socially conservative. A slim majority of this group, 51 percent, thought that 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, CEO of PPRI and co-author of the report. "There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between ‘social justice' and "right to life' Catholics."

U.S. bishops in this election season have made strong statements opposing same sex marriage, abortion and contraception, particularly in protest of the health care mandate which requires Catholic hospitals and universities 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, 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 by 56 percent.

"The church has clearly had a real impact on Catholic attitudes toward the death penalty, particularly among conservative Catholics," said E. J. Dionne, Jr. Senior Fellow at the Brooking 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 survey also found that 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 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 identify as white Christian, including 37 percent who say they are white evangelical, 19 percent who identify as white mainline Protestant, and 19 percent who identify as white Catholic.

The support for Obama among the religiously unaffiliated was large, by 73 percent to 22 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.

The report found that a third of religiously unaffiliated Americans were ages 18-29. People in this age group were also more likely to support Obama, by 70 percent.

Dionne said noted that 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.

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)