The evidence of a gulf in thinking on homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) between the formal position of Vatican orthodoxy and the real beliefs of ordinary Catholics is clear. To make sense of this. we need to consider two key questions: the compelling, established evidence that such a gulf exists, and the more tentative evidence that the oligarchy is starting to catch up.
In this post, I simply present a summary of the main findings on the belief of real Catholics, with some commentary and supporting links. Later, I will report on commentary elsewhere, and expand on the signs of the change that must come from the bishops’ oligarchy – and is just starting to do so.
The extent and growth of the Catholic / Oligarchy disconnect on homosexuality
Several major opinion polls have demonstrated the existence of this disconnect, with last week’s Washington Post/ABC poll on gay marriage just the latest of several. (see for example, here and here). Most of the time, the views of the Catholic subsample get just a line or a paragraph, but now we have a much more detailed analysis from the Public Religion Institute, digging into the detailed data from earlier research, and released as a report called Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
These were the key findings:
Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
This really should not surprise. Catholic tradition is strongly supportive of families. There is no reason at all why Pope Benedict’s recent address on this theme cannot be applied to all families, in keeping with the firm commitment of Catholic orthodoxy to inclusion and justice for all marginalized groups. Going back into older Catholic history, there was also an established tradition of liturgical rites for blessing same sex unions, and recognition of the spiritual value of what St Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendship” between male couples.
Defining same-sex marriage as a civil marriage dramatically increases support among Catholics.
If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage “like you get at city hall”, Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28%, from 43% to 71%. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic shift is more pronounced.
Catholics have a strong commitment to marriage as a sacrament, based on its connection with raising children, and do not see civil marriage as having any validity in the eyes of the Church. On that basis, the only significant difference between same sex and opposite sex civil marriages is the gender of the participants – a clear case of discrimination. There can be no valid religious argument for opposing what the Church itself sees as a purely legal arrangement between two people.
Beyond same-sex marriage, Catholic support for rights for gays and lesbian people is strong and slightly higher than the general public.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour laws that would protect gay and lesbian people in the workplace; 63% of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 6 in 10 (60%) of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt.
There are really two distinct issues here – discrimination, and adoption. Even formal Catholic teaching is opposed to what it describes as “unjust” discrimination against LGBT people. The problem is only that the CDF gets itself into an eggdance over attempting to present some discrimination as “just”, and opposing legal protection against discrimination, on the spurious grounds that we can all avoid discrimination by simply hiding our orientation – by remaining in the closet. In this, they are contradicting their own reminder that we should “speak the truth in love”, and that “the truth will set you free”.
Adoption is not a matter of discrimination against gay or lesbian people, but one of the rights of children. The only issue of importance should be, what is best for the child in need of adoptive parents. Frequently, the best available parents for some kids will be gay. To exclude such potential parents on arbitrary grounds limits the possibilities for the full flourishing of that child.
Compared to the general church-going public, Catholics are significantly less likely to hear about the issue of homosexuality from their clergy, but those who do are much more likely to hear negative messages.
Only about 1 in 4 Catholics who attend church services regularly say their clergy speak about the issue of homosexuality, but nearly two-thirds of this group say that the messages are negative.
Contrary to popular belief, the most important characteristics of Catholicism are not matters of sexual puritanism, but a commitment to justice and service on the one hand, and to developing a personal relationship with the Lord, through prayer and sacramental practice, on the other.
Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks on how it is handling the issue of homosexuality.
Less than 4 in 10 Catholics give their church top marks (a grade of either A or B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.
How can it be otherwise, on this or any other matter of sexuality, when the teaching is developed and disseminated by those who are not supposed to have any practical experience of loving sexual relationships, to those who do?
Seven in ten Catholics say that messages from places of worship contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.
In Catholic tradition, suicide is one of the gravest of sins. How grave a sin is it to lead another to suicide, either by promoting ideas of self-contempt, or by indirectly promoting or condoning youthful bullying?
Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.
Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed. Less than 1 in 4 (23%) believe that it can.
The majority Catholic view here is in fact close to generally accepted Catholic orthodoxy, which teaches that we must pay full attention to the findings of science. These findings, as reflected in the determinations of professional bodies in the fields of medicine and psychology, and in numerous field studies in animal behaviour, are that for some individuals and for some animal species, homoerotic sexual attraction and expression is entirely natural. Formal Catholic teaching has not yet grasped this nettle, but sooner or later it surely must.
A majority of Catholics believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.
Among the general population, less than half believe it is not a sin.
Of course such relations, in themselves, are not necessarily a sin – any more than sexual relations between any two adults are necessarily sinful. That rather depends on the context. Many theologians, and what appears to be an increasing number of bishops, now recognize that what matters is the quality of the relationship. If this is committed, permanent and faithful, then the sexual relationhip is no more sinful than that within marriage.
Even the orthodox position, which insists unambiguously that even within such a loving same sex relationship sexual expression is a grave sin, nevertheless agrees that this is not so in every case. There is always recognition of the primacy of conscience. Where gay or lesbian couples in sexual relationships do so after a full process of conscience formation on the matter, and have reached a decision in conscience that their relationship is not sinful – then there is no sin.
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