American Catholics are markedly tolerant of non-traditional families, with large majorities open to divorced, single, unmarried and gay parents, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States for a meeting on families.
Although nine in 10 U.S. Catholics say a family headed by a married mother and father is ideal, most say other types of families are acceptable. Eighty-seven percent are okay with single parents, 83 percent with divorced parents, 84 percent with unmarried parents and 66 percent with gay parents.
The findings, many out of step with church teachings, come as Francis tries to change the tone of the 1.2 billion-member church that he leads. He has refused to judge gay priests, called for a larger role for women, and though not approving of contraception has said that being a good Catholic does not mean “you have to be like rabbits.” He has criticized what he called an obsession with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and wants the Catholic church to be a home for all.
In the latest break with tradition, the Vatican announced on Tuesday that Francis would allow all priests to forgive women who have had an abortion during the church’s upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, which begins Dec. 8. A woman who has had an abortion is usually excommunicated unless she confesses and receives absolution, typically from a bishop.
Six in 10 Catholics say abortion is a sin, according to the report.
The survey examined topics that could be discussed at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this month and at the October Synod of Bishops in Rome, among them family life and sexuality. It also looked at Americans' connection to the Catholic church, whether as their religion, culture or ancestry. Most of the question in the survey are new, said Jessica Hamar Martinez, a senior researcher in Religion & Public Life for the Pew Research Center.
Forty-five percent of Americans are Catholic or are in some way connected to Catholicism. One fifth say it is their religion now, while one tenth say they were raised as Catholics but have fallen away from the church, according to the survey. A similar share say they still have a cultural connection to Catholicism. Of those cultural Catholics who were raised in the church, four in 10 say they could imagine returning one day.
But many views expressed by Catholics are not in accordance with the church’s beliefs.
Fewer than half say homosexual behavior, remarriage without annulment, living with a romantic partner and contraception are sins, the report found. Seven in 10 Catholics support married couples who choose not to have children.
Many Catholics say they would like their church to be more flexible toward those who are divorced, who are living with a partner without marriage or who are in same-sex relationships. Six in 10 think Catholics living together or divorced and remarried without an annulment should be allowed to receive Communion. Nearly half, 46 percent, say the church should recognize same-sex marriages.
On many of the questions, Catholics resemble the general public in their views. But there were significant differences in the responses to some questions, Martinez noted. For example Catholics are about as likely as Protestants to say that having an abortion is a sin, 57 percent of Catholics to 60 percent of Protestants, but less likely than Protestants to say engaging in homosexual behavior is sinful, 44 percent of Catholics to 62 percent of Protestants. And Catholics are more likely to say it is acceptable for a man and woman to live together without being married, 55 percent, than white evangelical Protestants, 27 percent, or black Protestants, 42 percent, but less likely than those who are religiously unaffiliated, 81 percent.
The report notes that Catholics’ own experiences may be influencing their attitudes toward families and sexuality. One in four Catholics has divorced, and one in 10 has also remarried. One in 10 is living with a partner and more than four in 10 have done so at some time.
As with other views on families, Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly, about four in 10, were more in agreement with church teachings than others. Many Catholics remain dedicated to their church and seven in 10 say they cannot imagine ever leaving it.
As for some of the beliefs Francis has focused on, six in 10 say working with the poor is essential to their Catholic identity. But only half as many say the same about working to address climate change, the report noted. Hispanic Catholics are more likely to be concerned about the morality of excessive consumption, the report found.
Among ex-Catholics, more than half have a positive view of Francis. And among all Catholics nine out of 10 view him positively, according to a Pew poll in February.
A different poll, done by Gallup in July, found that Francis' popularity in the United States had dropped dramatically, especially among Conservatives. Fifty-nine percent had a favorable view of the pope, down from 76 percent a year ago.
The 2015 Survey of U.S. Catholics and Family Life was conducted among 5,122 adults, among them 1,016 self-identified Catholics, from May 5 to June 7. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for Catholics and 1.6 percentage points for the full sample.