I'm not shocked, and certainly not disappointed, by a poll showing that most American Catholics disagree with their own church on gay rights. Though evangelical Protestants sometimes think they can make common cause with the once-reviled papists on "pelvic issues," the Vatican can't deliver many votes in American elections.
Why do so many American Catholics disregard their marching orders on sexual matters? I'm struck by one piece of data near the end of the report by the Public Religion Research Institute: 69 percent of polled Catholics say that one's sexual orientation cannot be changed, higher than the 63 percent among all Americans (and presumably much higher than the corresponding figure among evangelical Protestants).
The Catholic Church may have itself to blame for this, since social scientists are nearly unanimous in concluding that de-gayification programs are bunk, and the Vatican generally accepts the validity of scientific research. For example, I'm sure there are some Catholic creationists, but the Church does not have any problem with the theory of evolution (or the idea that the Earth has been around for 4 billion years), merely arguing that however we got here, God must have started the process. Kentucky's Creation Museum is a product of the Protestant Bible Belt; most Catholic priests would be embarrassed by it.
While more conservative Protestant denominations can simply tell gays to "stop being that way," Catholics find it harder to overlook the evidence that sexual orientation is unchangeable. The Church says, "We know you can't stop being that way, so just don't ever have sex," but most Catholics find this an unrealistic (and even cruel) position, so they reject it, much as they long ago decided to ignore the Church's ban on birth control.
It's remarkable that American Catholics don't follow the Vatican line, but the headlines may oversell the idea that Catholics are more gay-friendly than the US as a whole. Here are the PRRI's top bullet points on its press release:
- Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics favor either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or allowing them to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% of Catholics say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
- When same-sex marriage is defined explicitly as a civil marriage, support is dramatically higher among Catholics. If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage “like you get at city hall,” Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28 points, from 43% to 71%. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic increase is more pronounced.
According to the full report, 37 percent of the general US population favor gay marriage and another 27 percent favor civil unions, for a total of 64 percent — significantly lower than the 74 percent support among Catholics for some kind of legal recognition.
But among Catholics who attend church on a weekly basis (which amounts to 38 percent of self-identified Catholics), support drops to 26 percent for gay marriage and rises to 38 percent for gay civil unions. Combine the two and you get 64 percent for some kind of legal recognition, which is exactly the same as the total in the general population; the difference is that more devout Catholics seem to be more squeamish about using the word "marriage." (Still, only 31 percent of this group want "no legal recognition" of gay couples, which should be cold comfort to anti-gay groups, as Andrew Sullivan and Joe.My.God point out.)
According to the report, 30 percent of Latino Catholics say there should be "no legal recognition" of gay couples, higher than the 19 percent among white Catholics, but it's possible that more Latinos fall into the weekly-attendance group. (BTW, among evangelical Protestants, the figure is 57 percent.) Or maybe it's the reverse, and "weekly" Catholics are slightly less supportive of gay rights because they are disproportionately Latino.
I was disappointed that there was little geographical data in the report, since my big pet peeve with American political analysis is that it gives so much weight to demographic groups and so little to regional attitudes. (I'm sure that the higher cost of collecting site-specific data has something to do with this.) But there are numbers from two states.
Keep in mind that at the national level, 43 percent of Catholics and 37 percent of all Americans supported gay marriage. But that gap disappeared in California, where support for gay marriage among Catholics and among all residents was the same: 42 percent. And In Michigan, 40 percent of all Catholics supported gay marriage, which was below the 44 percent support from all Michigan residents. (I realize that we're getting into an area where margins of error can explain a lot, but the point is that there isn't consistent evidence of Catholics being more gay-friendly than Americans as a whole.)
I'd love to see more data on how Catholics in different states feel, and whether they simply reflect the overall population wherever they live.
Let me explain. I grew up in a heavily Catholic city in New England, and I interacted with a lot of athiests/agnostics, Jews, and Protestants from more liberal denominations (Congregationalists, Unitarians, and the like). The Catholic Church was considered a conservative institution; its anti-war sentiment and support for social welfare programs was unremarkable, but those pelvic issues pushed it to the right of the political spectrum. The Church's official positions on abortion, birth control, and gay rights were at odds with most non-Catholics in New England, so it was inevitable that most Catholics would at least question them.
But in much of the Bible Belt, I'm guessing, the Catholic Church is a liberal institution. In that region, there's nothing unusual about being against abortion and gay rights, but the Church must be to the left of most politicians in its concern for "social justice," its distaste for military spending, and its squishiness on law-and-order issues. I wonder if Catholics in those areas question the more bleeding-heart aspects of their religion but hold fast to "normal" conservative views on pelvic issues.
Until I see evidence that American Catholics hold similar views from state to state, I'll be skeptical of claims that Catholics are significantly ahead of the rest of the country on gay rights.
NOTE: Jamelle Bouie has it right:
Given the large population of Catholics and their fairly mainstream views, it doesn't actually say much that a candidate "does well with Catholics." Anyone sufficiently popular will do well with Catholics. More interesting, for my part, are the views of conservative Christians (Catholic or otherwise), African American evangelicals, and religious minorities, which actually tend to be a little idiosyncratic.