The Public Religion Research Institute team released today the most comprehensive portrait of Catholic attitudes concerning rights for gay and lesbian Americans to date. This new analysis paints a clear portrait of Catholics that may be surprising to some: across a range of issues regarding rights for gay and lesbian Americans, Catholics are more supportive than the general population and are more supportive than any other Christian group.
To fully grasp just who Catholics are today, one must understand two forces that are remaking American Catholicism: native-born attrition and immigration. Although American Catholics have comprised approximately one-quarter of the U.S. population for the last three decades, this stability in aggregate numbers masks considerable churn.
First, as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life put it, Catholics have been the “biggest losers” in the American religious market place. More than 1-in-10 Americans are former Catholics, and approximately half of all former Catholics remain unaffiliated with any faith. Among this group, majorities said they moved away from their former faith because they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings overall (65 percent) or became dissatisfied with Catholic teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56 percent).
The second force transforming American Catholicism is Latino immigration. Three-in-ten Catholics today are Latino. If current trends continue, Catholics will be a majority Latino faith by approximately 2025.
Our analysis found that this increasingly diverse Catholic community is strongly supportive of acceptance of and rights for gay and lesbian Americans. Generally speaking, Catholics are at least 5 points more supportive than the general population across a range of issues. For example, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Catholics favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace; 63 percent of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 60% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.
On the more contentious issue of same-sex marriage, the evidence is also stacking up for solid Catholic support at both the national and state levels. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll recently found that fully 63 percent of Catholics supported making it legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 53 percent of the general population. In our 2010 post-election American Values Survey, using different question wording, PRRI also found that a majority (53 percent) of Catholics supported allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 48% of the public.
At the state level, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed a majority (52%) of Catholic registered voters in New York support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 56% of New York registered voters overall. And two years after Proposition 8 in 2010, PRRI found that a majority (54%) of Catholics in California say they would now vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 51% of Californians overall.
Looking at the data, it’s difficult to find an issue where the trends are so consistently, even dramatically, in a single direction: towards greater acceptance and support of rights for gay and lesbian Americans. This is true both in the general population and among Catholics. And given the very strong support among younger Catholics for gay and lesbian equality, this trend is likely only to accelerate.
Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, summed up the future options for the Catholic Church hierarchy aptly in his remarks during a panel discussion at our new report’s release. As a practical matter, winning over rank and file Catholics to official church teachings seems highly improbable; rather, “the question facing the American bishops, who oppose same-sex marriage on doctrinal grounds, is how they will choose to address this momentum.”