This is the third and final post in the Catholic series. In the first post we profiled a few individuals who were standing up to the Vatican. Then we took a look at a couple of organizations whose mission it is to reform the Catholic Church. Today we delve into the most general of categories – the whole of the 80 million or so Catholics in the United States.
For the past week, I have argued that there is a disconnect between mainstream Catholic America and the Church’s leaders, but it’s easy to claim that Catholics are liberal, conservative or whatever else. Today I back it up with some evidence. I’ll try not to be so dry in my language but that’s the nature of such data. Here’s the disconnect on several contentious issues.
The Church is clear on its position that life begins at conception and that abortion is always evil. On abortion, American Catholics are divided, much like non-Catholic America. Whereas only 40% of Catholics find abortion to be morally acceptable (2009 Gallup), about half wish to keep it legal in all or most cases (2008 Pew). Both figures mirror the feelings of non-Catholic Americans. Abortion is probably the only major issue where even half of American Catholics are in line with Vatican teachings – this still means that half are opposed to it. The Gallup poll mentioned above also found that an overwhelming majority of Catholics supported medical research using human embryonic stem cells, which the Vatican categorically opposes.
The Church is clear on its position that contraception is evil. A Gallup poll released in May 2012 found that 82% of Catholics found birth control to be morally acceptable. In February, Public Policy Polling found that 58% of Catholics felt that employers should be required (not permitted, but required!) to provide health-care plans covering contraception at no extra cost.
This one is a lost battle (and war) for the Vatican. A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. In fact, Catholics support same-sex marriage even more than the general population. Throw civil unions into the mix and nearly three-quarters of American Catholics favor legal recognition of same-sex unions. In May 2011, a Gallup poll found that 57% of Catholics favored allowing members of the clergy to be openly gay. The Vatican? Still not budging an inch.
Ordination of women
This issue gets less press, mainly because there aren’t many women clamoring for the opportunity to serve as Catholic ministers. The growing set of disincentives that are discouraging men from joining the priesthood are more than enough to discourage most women who would otherwise be interested – all this in the face of an acute priest shortage in the Church. For the past two decades, polls have consistently shown that nearly 60% of Catholics favor the ordination of women (and married men!)
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The survey results sited above should be taken with a grain of salt. An analysis of the just concluded Republican primaries show that the public is fickle and prone to change its mind. What is important, however, is the pattern that emerges. If there was one survey that found that American Catholics are at odds with the Vatican, it would be difficult to draw any larger conclusions. But the frequency and the consistency of the data reveals that the results are not anomalous – that there is a real disconnect between the Vatican and its American laity. It’s not just one issue but almost all of the ones that are at the forefront of our national discussion on religious values in politics.
The main purpose of these three posts is not to suggest that progressive Catholics will change the Vatican any time soon. If anything, it’s a game of chicken that involves a bunch of activists who are still too weak to influence the Church hierarchy and a Church hierarchy that knows better than to further alienate itself from an already frustrated laity. American Catholics do care about their faith, but tradition, not ideology, is what binds them to the Vatican.
My primary aim is to combat the common belief, propagated by the punditocracy, that American Catholics are socially conservative and that supporting legislation opposed by the Church would lead to an electoral backlash. Let’s not forget that the most Catholic parts of the country (by percentage of the population) are the Northeast, California and the upper Midwest – in other words, all the traditionally Democratic parts of the country. I’m not arguing that these places are progressive because of Catholicism, but perhaps in spite of it. On issue after issue, we have seen that Catholics are either as progressive or even more so than the population at large. So the next time someone tells you that a politician’s pro-choice position or support of marriage equality will lead to a Catholic backlash, set them straight.