A new poll conducted at a Philadelphia-area parish by Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management reveals that LGBT issues are rising in prominence as a reason Catholics leave the Church. Yet, at the same time, members of the hierarchy double-down on their efforts to oppose equality for sexual minorities.
The survey asked 189 non-practicing and former Catholics about their reasons for leaving, producing instructive results for Catholic bishops and clergy struggling to retain parishioners. Scandals around sexual abuse and mishandling of cases was the primary reason, at about seventeen percent of respondents, but this does not reveal current trends. NewsWorks interviewed the poll’s director, Charles Zech of Villanova University, who said:
” ‘People who are going to leave the church over the scandal and the church’s handling of it have already left. So people leaving the church today are leaving for other reasons…A growing reason we found out was the church’s attitude toward homosexuals and gay marriage. A lot of younger people object to the church’s teaching on that.’ “
Catholic support of LGBT rights, especially for equal marriage, is well-documented, but there is little hard data on what the practical implications of this split between Catholics in the pews and their anti-gay leaders. This study suggests not only are the bishops’ policies against marriage equality and LGBT rights harming the directly affected communities, but have wider implications which undermine parish communities. Most leaving do not quit organized religion, but transfer to Protestant communities.
As this new polling is released, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is preparing anew to oppose anti-discrimination legislation that would include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. Pennsylvania is the sole northeast state without LGBT protections written into law on such things as employment and housing, and equality advocates are hoping to change this legislation. NewsWorks reports that representatives of the Conference base their objections in a fear that the Catholic Church would be forced to contradict its beliefs in social services, hospitals, and other institutions.
The Villanova parish study, which will not be made public, names both local issues as well as problems with the Vatican and US bishops as reasons for leaving the Catholic church. Polling director Zech believes local changes, like improved liturgies, could stem the losses. Many troubles are occurring in Philadelphia over parish-based issues, like closures and clustering, that even lead to protests at an immigration Mass recently–and saw Archbishop Charles Chaput deny Communion to three people.
Philadelphia Catholic leadership could withdraw their opposition to simple anti-discrimination legislation that protects the rights of LGBT people to their jobs, homes, and public services. Protecting the dignity of every person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is well-rooted in the Catholic tradition and it is why so many Catholics support equality. It is time to focus on creating welcoming communities and building up strong parishes, instead of opposing anti-discrimination laws and denying Communion. The new polling data show that the bishops’ current course on LGBT issues is a losing proposition.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry