The Catholic University of America
Mar 23 2011

American Catholics and Same-Sex Marriage

Posted by Stephen Schneck at 9:18 AM
- Categories: Religion & Culture & Society

Yesterday I was asked by the Public Religion Research Institute to comment on that institute’s newly released polling data on the attitudes of American Roman Catholics regarding same-sex unions.  The new numbers show continued momentum among Catholics toward support for such unions.

Among non-Latino, white Catholics 41% support same-sex marriage, 36% support civil unions, and 19% oppose any legal recognition of same-sex couples.  This represents an overall jump in support, especially for same-sex marriage.  Moreover, in comparison with other Christian denominations, Catholics have the highest numbers for such support—trumping not only Black Protestants and white Evangelicals, but even white mainline Protestants.  Given analysis of age-cohorts, this level of support should be expected to rise, inasmuch as there is dramatically higher support for same-sex marriage among younger Catholics than among older Catholics.

When looked at through the lens of Mass attendance, the results change, but neither as much as in previous polls nor as much as is true for many other public policy issues.  For Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, support for same-sex marriage is now at 26% and for civil unions at 38%, which lumped together would mean 64% support for some kind of same-sex unions (an exact reversal of the 63% of weekly-attending Catholics who oppose abortion).  For those who attend Mass “once or twice per month” support for same-sex marriage is 43%, while another 43% support civil unions.  For self-identified Catholics who attend Mass less frequently, 59% support same-sex marriage and 19% support civil unions.

The momentum of support is growing in all categories—for every level of Mass attendance, for both genders, and for all age brackets.  This mirrors similar momentum perceived among Americans generally.  Even for Latino Catholics, a group sometimes perceived as more traditional in regard to social values, the momentum is toward some legal recognition of same-sex couples.  Indeed, Latino Catholics now support same-sex marriage at a higher rate (45%) than white Catholics (41%).

An important element of the new data is what looks like a particular Catholic interest in civil unions.  When offered the polling option of distinguishing between civil unions and same-sex marriage, Catholics were highest among all religious groups and higher than Americans overall in supporting civil unions.  This was most noticeable among those Catholics who attend Mass more often.  For example, civil union support was 38% for weekly worshippers and 43% for twice-a-month worshippers.  The data are open to further research, but it might be supposed that some Catholics are willing to grant same-sex couples all the civil rights associated with marriage, but understandably want to reserve the word “marriage” for the traditional sacrament. 

Civil union supporters may be the swing group on the issue.  If civil union support is tallied among those who support same-sex marriage than a whopping 77% of Catholics might be said to support same-sex marriage.  But, if civil union respondents are counted among those who oppose same-sex marriage than a majority of Catholics could be said to oppose same-sex marriage: 55%-43%. 

The Roman Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage on both doctrinal and traditional grounds.  Theologically the Church—unlike some Christian denominations—distinguishes between being and acting.  Sexual activity outside traditional marriage is sinful, but sexual orientation is merely a fact of nature.  If legal sanctioning of same-sex unions promotes such activity outside of traditional marriage then it must be opposed.  Similarly, Catholic teaching maintains that traditional marriage is foundational for civilization.  And, traditional marriage is holy: a sacrament specified in revelation and ordained by the Creator in nature itself.

What strikes me, in reflecting upon the Church’s teachings (in light of the new numbers for public opinion) is how very much the Church’s reasoning in opposing same-sex marriage parallels its reasoning in opposing divorce.  And, I mention this divorce comparison to frame a question.

Let me be a good social scientist here and mention my own bias in this analysis.  I am one of those dwindling number of Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage.  The question though is how to oppose it.  Should same-sex marriage be opposed with the same all-or-nothing, moral outrage (an outside and often political campaign waged in the public square) that has characterized the American Church’s opposition to pro-abortion policies?  Or, should opposition look more like the Church’s opposition to divorce—which is today largely an inside and pastoral campaign (not conducted in the public square) aimed at educating Catholics in the pews about the importance of marriage and about the moral consequences of behavior that compromises traditional marriage?  I’m not advocating one or another approach and the options aren't entirely mutually exclusive, but among Catholics the rapidly building momentum in support of same-sex unions is obvious.

Religion Research Institute’s new study:


Mary Paterson

Mary Paterson wrote on 03/23/11 4:42 PM

Thank you for this thoughtful comment on an important social issue. As I think about this issue through the lens of health policy, I wonder how much of the support for this issue among U.S. Catholics is based in the appreciation of the need for affiliated individuals to take advantage of benefits like employer-based health insurance. In many discussions I hear support for civil union or even same sex marriage based on fair access to employer benefits. Because of this often-quoted rationale, the discussion of same-sex marriage or civil union becomes entangled with issues of social justice. Certainly, we should not have to base our approval of this extremely serious moral issue on considerations of access to health or pension benefits, which should be provided at a decent minimum for all persons.

Engaging the question of how to oppose the moral issue, includes the question of how to separate the moral issue from the social justice concerns. This is a related and equally important discussion.
Anthony Stasi

Anthony Stasi wrote on 04/12/11 4:02 PM

I would say that the important statistic is the difference between older and younger Catholics when it comes to same sex marriage as a moral issue. On the social justice front (in regard to health care), few would argue that health care ought to be denied because such couples are of the same sex. In fact, the denial of health benefits is what is making this an Equal Protection issue in the courts.

It is my belief that a growing number of young Catholics would not feel comfortable defining a relationship as illegitimate just because it is not a heterosexual relationship. By denying same sex couples the right to marry, government is saying that these relationships are not legitimate. It is the implication of a lack of legitimacy (more than the issue of health care) that is driving up support among young Catholics who may see this as a form of discrimination.

Younger Catholics also make a sharp contrast between what they expect of their government and their religious beliefs. Not many Catholics in favor of same sex marriage want Catholicism to change; they simply want the licensing laws of marriage to change.

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