For years, liberals have decried the conservative theology of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, lamenting U.S. bishops’ efforts to push back against LGBT equality, for example. But a new study illustrates a widening ideological gulf between Catholic leadership and people in the pews. In fact, typical Catholics are not only more left-leaning than the Church, but also more progressive than average Americans on most major issues — sometimes by significant margins.
The report, created through a joint polling effort of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service (RNS), was released on Friday in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States next month. It chronicled America’s ongoing love affair with the popular pontiff, but also pointed out the increasingly liberal politics of the country’s Catholics.
The disparity between Catholics and other U.S. residents — not to mention Church leadership — is especially evident on LGBT issues. Whereas 55 percent of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, a full 60 percent of Catholics say the same. This directly contradicts the Catholic Church’s official opposition to marriage equality, yet most Catholics (53 percent) do not believe same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
What’s more, when Catholics were asked whether they favor laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination, 76 percent said yes — as opposed to 70 percent of Americans overall. And while U.S. bishops have supported guaranteeing business owners the right to refuse service to customers who are LGBT by citing religious concerns, around two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholics oppose such policies. Most Americans also disagree with so-called “religious liberty” exemptions, but by a smaller percentage — 57 percent.
Lay Catholics are also more progressive than average Americans on climate change, although their opinion is more in line with Catholic officials such as Pope Francis, who recently published a formal encyclical calling on the faithful to protect the planet. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of the general public believes the government should do more to address global warning, compared to some 73 percent of Catholics.
Meanwhile, Catholics mirror most Americans by sharing the pope’s fairly left-leaning approach to economics and immigration. Catholics (72 percent) and Americans writ large (71 percent) agree that the government should do more to help the poor eradicate income inequality, while 63 percent of the general U.S. population and 61 percent of Catholics say America should grant undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship under certain requirements.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of American Catholics (57 percent) also believe that the Church should focus more on economic and social justice issues than reproductive justice. While this may seem odd given the Church’s longstanding, passionate opposition to abortion, lay Catholics are closely aligned with the general populace here: A slim majority of average Americans (53 percent) and Catholics (51 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Granted, several of these issues express themselves differently when Catholics are broken down along racial lines. For example, non-white Catholics express much stronger support for government action on climate change (86 percent) than white Catholics (64 percent). Similarly, non-white Catholics (81 percent) are far more likely than white Catholics (65 percent) to tell pollsters that the government should do more to address economic inequality. Conversely, roughly equal numbers of white Catholics (59 percent) and non-white Catholics (61 percent) support same-sex marriage.
Some of these trends reflect longstanding Catholic teaching, and other surveys have pointed out the progressive bent of Catholicism globally — including in places such as Ireland, where thousands of Catholics recently voted to legalize same-sex marriage. But the PRRI report also helps explain the wild popularity of Pope Francis among American Catholics, who have lauded the pontiff’s deeply progressive positions on climate change, economics, and immigration. And while Francis hasn’t changed the Church’s historical condemnation of homosexual acts and abortion, the first Argentinian pope has called for the church to be less “obsessed” with such issues, framing his papacy around other concerns.
Predictably, the survey found that while 80 percent of American Catholics say Pope Francis understands the needs and views of the American Catholic community, only 60 percent are willing to say the same for U.S. bishops. In addition, 56 percent of Catholics report their feelings towards Church have changed since Francis ascended to the papacy.