Pope Francis faces church divided over doctrine, global poll of Catholics finds

Michelle Boorstein talks about Pope Francis's efforts to engage with the public and his openness to popular culture. (Jhaan Elker and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)
February 9

Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception and are split on whether women and married men should become priests, according to a large new poll released Sunday and commissioned by the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision. On the topic of gay marriage, two-thirds of Catholics polled agree with church leaders.

Overall, however, the poll of more than 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries reveals a church dramatically divided: Between the developing world in Africa and Asia, which hews closely to doctrine on these issues, and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America, which strongly support practices that the church teaches are immoral.

The widespread disagreement with Catholic doctrine on abortion and contraception and the hemispheric chasm lay bare the challenge for Pope Francis’s year-old papacy and the unity it has engendered.

Among the findings:

●19 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 30 percent in the Latin American countries surveyed agree with church teaching that divorcees who remarry outside the church should not receive Communion, compared with 75 percent in the most Catholic African countries.

Findings: Catholics around the world more liberal than the Vatican

●30 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 36 percent in the United States agree with the church ban on female priests, compared with 80 percent in Africa and 76 percent in the Philippines, the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia.

●40 percent of Catholics in the United States oppose gay marriage, compared with 99 percent in Africa.

The poll, which was done by Bendixen & Amandi International for Univision, did not include Catholics everywhere. It focused on 12 countries across the continents with some of the world’s largest Catholic populations. The countries are home to more than six of 10 Catholics globally.

“This is a balancing act. They have to hold together two increasingly divergent constituencies. The church has lost its ability to dictate what people do,” said Ronald Inglehart, founding president of the World Values Survey, an ongoing global research project.

“Right now, the less-developed world is staying true to the old world values, but it’s gradually eroding even there. [Pope Francis] doesn’t want to lose the legitimacy of the more educated people,” he added.

After his election to the papacy 11 months ago, Francis seemed to immediately grasp the significance of the divisions among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He has chosen inclusive language, has played down the importance of following the hierarchy and has warned against the church locking itself up “in small-minded rules.” The poll reflects previous ones in finding that the vast majority of Catholics appreciate his approach.

Other faiths have seen many fissures over similar questions about doctrine, including Protestant denominations and Judaism.

Pope Francis appears particularly eager to engage with divisions around sex, marriage and gender and has called a rare “extraordinary synod” this fall on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family.” For that, he has asked bishops to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things.

Areas of similarity

Of the seven questions pollsters asked about hot-button issues, there appeared to be the greatest global agreement on contraception (opposing church teachings) and gay marriage (supporting the church’s stance).

Seventy-eight percent of Catholics across all countries surveyed support the use of contraceptives, which violate the church’s teaching that sex should always be had with an openness toward procreation. The church teaches natural family planning, which Catholics can use to plan sex and attempt to avoid getting pregnant.

More than 90 percent of Catholics in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France support the use of contraception. Those less inclined to support it were in the Philippines (68 percent), Congo (44 percent) and Uganda (43 percent). In the United States, 79 percent of Catholics support using contraception.

Debate in the church over reproductive technologies is nothing new, said Jose Casanova, a leading sociologist of religion at Georgetown University. He noted that a papal commission in the 1960s recommended approving the use of birth control pills (it was later rejected) and said dramatic recent medical advances have challenged theologians.

“If you accommodate contraception, does that mean you’d allow abortion? How do you distinguish which aspects of teaching go together? Bioethics is a new frontier that forces moral thinkers and ethicists to constantly ask: What is humanity?”

Catholics have been intensely divided over the centuries over other issues, he said, from whether it was all right to evangelize native peoples to how the church could accumulate wealth while holding up the value of poverty.

However, the disagreements around sex and pregnancy have built to “a crisis in the church with women,” Casanova said. The church can neither accept “the radical secularization of sexuality” — or the idea that sex has nothing to do with religion — nor can it continue insisting on practices that are being completely ignored. “Unless they face it, the church will be in trouble.”

The poll also showed 66 percent of Catholics opposing same-sex marriage, with majorities in eight of the 12 countries surveyed agreeing with church doctrine.

The poll suggests that in his first year, Pope Francis has proved apt at navigating this diverse flock. Eighty-seven percent of Catholics around the world said the Argentine pastor is doing an excellent (41 percent) or good (46 percent) job. Catholics in Mexico were least likely to approve of his performance, at 70 percent.

Areas of disagreement

The poll showed stark divisions among Catholics over church teachings on abortion, divorce and remarriage. Catholics who don’t get an annulment or who marry again outside a Catholic Church setting aren’t eligible for Communion and are considered not in unity with the faith.

Overall, 65 percent of Catholics said abortions should be allowed: 8 percent in all cases and 57 percent in some, such as when the mother’s life is in danger. But the highest support for abortion rights is in European countries, then in Brazil and Argentina, then in the United States, where 76 percent of Catholics said it should be allowed in some or all cases. In the Philippines, 27 percent of Catholics said abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances. In Uganda, 35 percent said so.

Catholics are most evenly split over the question of whether women and married men should be priests. The dividing line, again, falls on hemispheric lines, with those in Africa and Asia more traditional and others less so.

What’s distinctive today, Catholic theologian Lawrence Cunningham said, isn’t that there are disagreements but that they center on similar topics.

“Even if you look in the North American church of my youth, Polish Catholics and Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics weren’t focused on the same issues. They had their own views on family,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think [today] it’s an issue of disagreement. It’s more: ‘Whoa, we’re finding a lot of people from across the Catholic world talking about the same kinds of issues and we better face up to them.’ ”

U.S. and Latin America

Catholics in fast-developing Latin America fit somewhere in the middle, but not neatly. Thirty-nine percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean, the biggest share in any region of the world. But Latin American Catholics’ relationship with the institutional church varies depending on many factors, including whether their government has been intertwined with church officials and whether evangelical Protestants have made recent inroads.

In the United States, Catholics are divided on some issues, including gay marriage (54 percent support it; 40 percent oppose it). Compared with Catholics worldwide, they are more liberal than Africa, Asia and some parts of Latin America but not as liberal as Spain. The poll mirrored ones that show U.S. Catholics support married priests, female priests, abortion and contraception.

Since the liberalizing and divisive Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II appeared to approach the gap with an explicit plan: Narrow it. They emphasized doctrine and called for institutions that wanted to call themselves Catholic to follow the rules. Benedict prompted a lot of debate by saying and writing that a period of shrinkage seemed inevitable if the church was to stick to its teachings.

Francis seeks feedback

So what is Pope Francis’s plan, if he has one?

Critics say his solicitation of opinions wrongly gives the appearance that Catholicism is a democracy. Others — including the authors of this poll — say there’s no evidence that he would touch doctrine and is seeking a deeper understanding of why so many Catholics reject church teachings so as to better market them.

Casanova said it’s not clear what Francis plans to do with the research, but the approach “fits with his idea of the church going out into the world and encountering the world as it is, not expecting the world to come to it.”

Any change would be a complex undertaking, as Catholics are going in many directions, he said. He noted that Catholics in Brazil, the most populous Catholic country, widely reject some core church teachings but are seeing a surge in men becoming priests for the first time in decades. Filipino Catholics, he said, support church teachings on some social issues but have a powerfully charismatic faith that isn’t focused on being in step with church leaders.

The church “may be in a period of moral evolution,” he said. “It’s not about seeing where the wind blows, but which are signs of God and which are simply fashion? This is a very difficult theological enterprise, kind of a new way of trying to understand the situation of the church in the world.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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