A survey conducted by NBC News queried over 30,000 employees in the Catholic Church, covering a range of subjects including women’s leadership in the church, marriage equality, and the sexual abuse crisis. 2,700 respondents shared opinions, and responses were divided across gender lines.
Among the starkest of responses from the poll came from diocesan priests and religious sisters. In response to the question “Do you believe the Church should consider recognizing same sex marriages as non-sacramental unions and allow Catholics in these unions to receive communion?” 56.1% said, No, this is settled doctrine, while 43.9% agreed that Yes, this needs further study.
There was a vast difference in opinion depending on the roles that respondents had in the institution church. The highest percentage of negative responses came from diocesan priests, with only 28% responding in favor of further discussion, while the most positive group was religious sisters, 64% of whom responded in favor of further discussion. The only male group that favored further discussion of the question was religious brothers, with 59% responding positively.
In a related question, the survey asked from a given list of options what they hope leaders in their dioceses would speak out more against. “Threats to religious liberty” was second only to poverty from the list of eight issues provided with some 50.3% of church employees agreeing church leaders should address the issue more. The U.S. bishops have used allegations of such threats to religious liberty as a tactic in their campaign to stymie LGBTQ rights. That number may reflect the bishops’ success in convincing church employees, but it may also reflect church employees legitimate worries about threats to religious liberty in a global context.
In considering the data, it is important to recognize the number of respondents for each area. While 2,700 responded to the overall survey, the highest percentage of participants were lay women employees, who made up more than half of the group with 1,498 responses. In this group, 57% voted ‘no’ on the above question related to same-gender marriages, and only 43% responding yes. The second largest group was lay men employees, followed by diocesan priests. The smallest group were religious brothers, with 34 responses. As readers consider the percentages in each category, it is worth considering how those percentages may have shifted if a greater percentage of the 30,000 employees who received the survey had participated.
In Forbes News’ report of the survey, several individuals with personal connections to the questions were interviewed. Rev. Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, a Roman Catholic Womanpriest and author of How to Keep Your Parish Alive, said she ministers to many in the LGBTQ community, and sees no reason not to recognize all marriages as sacred. She said, “When I marry gay people or straight people, the same look of love is in their eyes.”
According to Mark Gray, a senior research associate at CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, this is one of just a few polls of its kind. “It’s the newest and well-done survey that I’ve seen,” said Gray who served as an advisor to NBC on the phrasing of some questions. Gray notes that the institutional church is “very resistant to change,” along with many of its employees, and that that “the results…bear that out.”
While there is certainly a way to go in the evolution of church employees’ views regarding LGBTQ equality in the sacraments and all areas of church life, the data does provide a degree of counternarrative to a mainstream picture of Catholicism as solely socially conservative. The LGBTQ advocacy and ministry of women religious, for example, continues to serve as a strong example of a consistent moral compass in today’s church.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, January 30, 2020