10 LGBT Insights from the Pew Survey of U.S. Catholics for Pope Francis' Visit

As the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to the U.S. approach, a new Pew Forum poll revealed that the majority of U.S. Catholics’ support nontraditional families. When it comes to LGBT issues specifically, we might have to dig a little deeper to understand the significance of the numbers.

First lets look at some of the facts from the Pew Research Center’s “2015 Survey of U.S. Catholics and Family Life.” Of the 1,016 self-identified Catholics surveyed:

  • 70% accept cohabiting same-sex couples;
  • 66% accept same-sex couples raising children, including 43% who believe this is as good as any other arrangement;
  • 46% believe the church should recognize same-sex marriages.

Reading through the report, I thought Catholic numbers about LGBT families were somewhat down from other surveys. Here are a few thoughts about what is going on and why any conversations about family life should critically use such data, but to do so with some caution.

First, the Pew Research Center splices and dices U.S. Catholicism into groupings. They separate those who attend Mass weekly from those who do not. They separate Catholics from cultural Catholics and from ex-Catholics. Sometimes, sociologically, these are helpful, if imperfect, categorizations, but we cannot rely on them to tell the People of God’s story.

Mass attendance does not a Catholic make. We are united as the Body of Christ through baptism, whether we attend weekly liturgies or have not stepped foot in a church for years. Some of the most faithful Catholics I know, who have offered their entire lives to God, do not attend Mass weekly. And some weekly Mass attendees stop living their faith after that hour on Sunday.

Faith journeys, if embraced with critical reason and open to the mystery of God, may shift us from “Catholic” to “ex-Catholic” and back again over the course of several years or even decades. These categories do not allow for the tenuous relationship with the church so many have, or for our prioritization of being faithful to God as known through Christ rather than adherence to the edicts of human beings. They do not emphasize those who choose to be foremost catholic instead of Roman Catholic or those who yearn to come home, but are kept out.

Second, those identifying as cultural Catholic or ex-Catholic are far more affirming of LGBT issues. The church should listen closely. There are countless reasons why someone raised Catholic decides to leave the church (often to join another faith community), but high among these reasons is the hierarchy’s condemnation of LGBT people and its public campaigning against equal rights. Simply writing off their views because they are “non-practicing” does not allow the true costs of the bishops’ LGBT-negative views to sink in. These costs have included not only damage to LGBT people and their families, but the deep harm such views have inflicted on the church as a whole.

Third, 45% of the American population has a Catholic connection. Pew’s categorization attempts do reveal the interesting reality that when Catholic parents, spouses, and personal religious histories are included, almost half the U.S. population is heavily influenced by Catholicism. I bet this bumps higher if Catholic school is added to the mix. Further evidence for the truism that where there are Catholics so is there greater LGBT equality? I think so.

Fourth, age matters. The younger the Catholic, the more affirming they are. 63% of Millennials (those ages 18-29) say same-sex relationships are equivalent to opposite sex ones. Only 16% of this age bracket condemn same-sex couples compared to 38% of those over 65. The overall acceptance of such couples may be 46%, but pure demographics mean it will not be long before that number tops 50% and keeps climbing.

Fifth, while 44% of Catholics surveyed believe homosexual behavior is a sin, there are 39% who say it is not. For whatever reason, Pew does not include demographic breakdowns among Catholics for this statistic. From everything else I know, I bet age matters here most of all. Millennials overwhelmingly understand oft-repeated refrains: “love is love,” and “love wins.”

Sixth, Hispanic youth are the central question when it comes to age. Hispanic Catholics will be the majority of U.S. Catholics in just a few years. According to some surveys, Hispanic Catholic adults are less affirming of homosexuality than their counterparts, but whether emerging generations will tend towards their parents’ beliefs or those of their more affirming non-Hispanic peers is unclear.

Seventh, U.S. Catholics surveyed are overwhelmingly more accepting of heterosexual ‘sins’ like cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, or the use of artificial contraception. Given that only 4% of Catholics identified as LGB in Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscapes survey, these current numbers suggest people are far more lenient when it comes to their own sins. Might they be a little biased?

Eighth, 42% of Millennials expect the church will recognize same-sex marriages by 2050 and 36% of all Catholics surveyed agree. Could there be ecclesial recognition in just 35 years? A not negligible number of younger Catholics think so — and they will be the ones rising to leadership in coming years.

Ninth, this same group of under-30 Catholics is also far more willing to leave the Catholic Church if they have not done so already. 41% say “they could see themselves leaving the church,” reported Pew, and if LGBT equality changes are not forthcoming, many of them very well may walk away.

Tenth, the Pew numbers reveal Catholics  love their church and have hopes it will change, but they are refusing to tolerate intolerance much longer. As Pope Francis prepares for his first trip ever to the United States, he should consider first just how affirming and inclusive U.S. Catholics really are, and  the precarious position the U.S. bishops put this national church in by their unceasing campaign against LGBT justice and inclusion.

For ongoing LGBT-related updates for the World Meeting of Families, papal visit, and Synod of Bishops in October, subscribe to the blog (for free) by typing your email address in the “Follow” box in the upper right-hand corner of this page, and then click the “Follow” button.

For those attending the World Meeting of Families, or anyone who wants to come to Philadelphia at the end of September, consider attending New Ways Ministry’s half-day workshop on gender diverse families entitled TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholics Perspectives, on Saturday, September 26, 2015, 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 North Broad Street, Philadelphia.  For more information, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “Most US Catholics are fine with nontraditional families”

3 replies
  1. Jerry Baumeister, PhD
    Jerry Baumeister, PhD says:

    Bob, this analysis of the Pew Report is spot on. Thank you for breaking it down. Your tenth point I believe is the most salient.. Catholics will no longer tolerate intolerance much longer! I hope the Council of Bishops understands this, or the church will suffer a massive exodus of believers who will choose more inclusive churches.

  2. Richard McIvor
    Richard McIvor says:

    “Mass attendance does not a Catholic make. We are united as the Body of Christ through baptism, … And some weekly Mass attendees stop living their faith after that hour on Sunday.” is jarring, well-balanced – and food for thought.
    This is a very good interpretation of the Pew Catholic survey numbers.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Pew’s latest survey backs another report released for Pope Francis’ visit earlier this fall which stated 46% of Catholics approved of same-sex marriage and 66% approved of same-sex couples raising children. At the time, I suggested those numbers were low and offered some thoughts as to why, which you can read here. […]

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