Same-Sex Marriage Just One Of Many Issues Dividing Catholic Clergy and Laity, According to Poll

A Quinnipiac poll released Friday examines how American Catholics view the Catholic Church, and it found that adult Catholics think the Church is out of touch with the views of American Catholics; a majority of adult Catholics polled disagree with major Church stances, like opposition to gay marriage. The poll shows that American voter support for same-sex marriage is now at 47% – 43%, including 54% – 38% percent among Catholic voters. Those numbers suggest that Catholics are more likely than other Americans to support same-sex marriage.

"Catholic voters are leading American voters toward support for same-sex marriage," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Among all voters, there is almost no gender gap, but a big age gap. Voters 18 to 34 years old support same sex marriage 62 - 30 percent; voters 35 to 54 years old are divided 48 - 45 percent and voters over 55 are opposed 50 - 39 percent.”

Of the self-identified Catholics in the Quinnipiac survey, 31% responded that they attend “religious services” every week, 12% said “almost” every week and 39% said that they attended Mass a few times a year. So the survey sample included nearly as many churchgoing Catholics as non-churchgoing Catholics.

But what makes a “good” Catholic, anyway? Does how many times a per week someone attends religious services suffice as an indicator of whether they are a “good” Catholic or not? Of course not. My idea of a good Catholic is bound to be different than yours.

In speculating on the reasons for the increase in support for same-sex marriages among Catholics, one might find that the statistics are consistent with an overall increase in support for gay marriage in the United States in general. High-ranking public officials, like President Barack Obama, have taken an increasingly pro-gay stance. Congress passed and President Obama signed a law allowing gay and lesbian members of the military to openly reveal their sexual orientation, for example, rather than keeping it hidden as part of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Former President Bill Clinton wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which he signed into law in 1996 and defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, should be overturned. And it’s not just high-ranking public officials, but also businesses that are becoming increasingly LGBT-friendly.  

"When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that 'enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination," Clinton wrote in the Post. "Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned."

A New York Times survey published earlier this week suggested similar findings, or finding consistent with those in the Quinnipiac poll:

- Almost 59% of those polled thought of Pope Benedict XVI as not favorable, were undecided or hadn’t heard enough.

- Seventy-five percent of those polled said it was a good idea for Benedict to resign.

- Fifty-four percent said they would like to see the next pope generally change to more liberal teachings.

- Sixty-six percent of those polled said they were looking for the new pope to be someone younger with new ideas.

- Of the issues that the pope will be facing in his first years, 69% of voters said the next pope should be for allowing priests to marry and allowing women to become priests.

- Fifty-six percent said the new pope should be against legalized abortion and the death penalty.

- Seventy-one percent said the new pope should be for artificial methods of birth control

- Ninety-one percent said that the next pope should be for the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.

In addition, when asked which voters were more likely to follow when faced with difficult moral questions — the teachings of the pope or their conscience —78% responded that they would follow their conscious. Eighty-three percent of those polled also said that it is possible to disagree with the pope on issues such as birth control, abortion and divorce and still be a good Catholic.

Bishops not representing the Catholic population as a whole is not a new trend however; at least in the U.S. Bishops are far more extreme on all issues, ranging from abortion rights to same-sex marriage. For example, a poll showing that only an estimated one in five Catholics in the U.S. believe abortions should be banned in all circumstances is far out of line with what bishops preach. Additionally, a report from the Guttmacher Institute, the nonprofit sexual health research organization, shows that only 2% of Catholic women, even those who regularly attend church, rely on natural family planning. There are just some issues that the pope is losing infallibility on in the 21st century, whether you are a Catholic willing to admit that or not.

What all of these surveys and reports show is that differences “between the pulpit and the pew” amongst American Catholics are nothing new. But the gap is widening, and would it really be that bad of an idea for the Church to concede, at least a little, to evolving societal norms, considering that a large portion of its members already have?