Report finds increasing Catholic support for marriage equality

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April 7, 2011
By: Chuck Colber/TRT Reporter
Catholic advocates for LGBT rights got a boost with the release of a new report showing the faithful are more supportive of gay rights than the general public and other Christian denominations. At the same time, the report points to a higher Catholic interest in civil unions, suggesting education may be key in convincing civil-unions backers to embrace full marriage equality.

“Catholics are at least five percentage points more supportive than the general population,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute, referring to a range of public-policy, legal, and legislative issues, including same-sex marriage, workplace non-discrimination, open military service, and adoption rights for lesbian and gay couples.

Jones’s remarks came during a telephone press conference on Tuesday, March 22, when two panelists discussed report findings. The report, “Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues,” is said to be the most comprehensive portrait to date on the topic. Some key findings from the study ( <>) include:

• “Nearly three-quarters of Catholics favor either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43 percent) or allowing them to form civil unions (31 percent). Only 22 percent 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,” moreover, “support is dramatically higher among Catholics.” For example, “If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage ‘like you get in city hall,’ Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28 points, from 43 percent to 71 percent. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic increase is more pronounced.”

• The report also showed strong Catholic support for other aspects of gay rights, with 73 percent supporting laws against workplace discrimination, 60 percent favoring gay adoptions, and 63 percent favoring openly gay military service.

• “A majority of Catholics (56 percent) believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is _not_ a sin.” By way of contrast, “among the general population, less than half (46 percent) believe it is not a sin.”

Altogether, attitudes among American Catholics contrast sharply with views of U.S. bishops who continually oppose LGBT equal rights.   While church doctrine holds sexual relations between two people of the same gender as always sinful, pastoral teaching says “homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

During the press conference, panelist and sociologist Michelle Dillon, she was not surprised by the report’s findings, even if the results contradict a popular stereotype of Catholics as traditionally conservative on social issues.

“The findings do fit with increased general patterns of support in the general US population as a whole for various aspects of gay rights, including same-sex marriage,” said Dr. Dillon, chair of the Sociology Department at the University of New Hampshire.

In particular, she added, “Catholic support fits with what has been well-documented over the last several years of a pretty strong pattern of liberalism among Catholics in general for various issues,” for instance, “abortion, divorce without annulment,” the “sexually, socially contested” issues within the Church.

More good news, Catholic attitudes on gay rights from the new report fall in line with a March 18, 2011 Washington Post-ABC poll, which found that a slim majority of Americans – 53 percent – who say they now support same-sex marriage. Just five years ago, only 36 percent of all Americans said they supported gay marriage.

Regionally, a poll conducted last summer by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research that surveyed 502 likely Rhode Island voters from July 7 to 12 showed 59 percent support for allowing same-sex couples to marry legally in the state, with practicing Catholics favoring marriage equality by 57 percent.

And yet Dr. Dillon said, “Even though the report data show strong support among the Catholic laity, I don’t think we should expect the Catholic bishops to stand back and say we don’t need to focus on these issues.”

As she explained, “Quite the contrary. The bishops often repeat they are not going to be distracted by any polls or what the laity say,” adding, “We’re certainly going to see a lot of activism on the part of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to try to keep at bay the move toward increasing laws favoring same-sex marriage.”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Providence diocese, for example, shows no signs of easing his push back against same-sex marriage in Rhode Island where the Legislature is considering a marriage equality bill. Earlier this year, he said in a press statement, “The push to legalize the marriage of homosexual persons is morally wrong and detrimental to the well-being of our state.”

At the same time, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the newly elected president of the bishops’ conference, recently compared same-sex marriage to incest. “I mean, I love my mom,” Dolan told CBS’s “60 Minutes.” But  “I don’t have the right to marry her, OK? There are certain rights and attractions in life that are very beautiful and noble but don’t entitle you to marriage.”

Meanwhile, what accounts for the Catholic laity’s progressive gay-rights positions?

“For Catholics, same-sex issues are personal matters of morality; and just as Catholics have made up their own minds about divorce and contraception, they also see same-sex relations in the same arena,” Professor Dillon explained. “It’s up to the individuals involved. They see these issues as being independent of church teaching.”

Roslindale resident Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity/USA, an LGBT Catholic advocacy group, who was not on the conference call, but reached afterwards, said she attributes the laity’s liberal attitudes to “the climate that has allowed more and more Catholics to come out to their families, their friends, and fellow Catholics.”

For Casey Lopata of Fortunate Families, a national gay-positive ministry of outreach to parents of LGBT children, “It’s that personal relationship, once you personally know someone and love,” he said, referring to Catholic parents who see their gay sons and lesbian daughters in relationships and are grandparents.

The other panelist on the call agreed with professor Dillon’s assessment of liberal trends among the laity. “Even among Latino Catholics, long supposed to be a group supportive of traditional social values, the numbers point to growing support for same-sex marriage,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. “The question facing the bishops, who opposed same-sex marriage on doctrinal grounds, is how they will choose to address this momentum.”

Dr. Schneck also spoke to what he called another “striking feature” of the report, “the much higher Catholic interest, especially among white non-Latino Catholics, in civil unions compared to other denominations and Americans generally.” Apparently, he said, “Catholics like civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage at a higher rate than other groups.”

But civil-union support is a matter of perspective.” If Catholics [who] support civil unions are counted among those favoring same-sex marriage, then a majority of Catholics support [it],” Schneck explained. “If on the other hand, civil-union supporters are counted among those who oppose same-sex marriage, then the majority of Catholics oppose same-sex marriage by 55 to 43 percent. It’s the possible swing group for both sides on this issue.”

Nonetheless, Boston resident Charles Martel, co-founder of Catholic for Marriage Equality, sees handwriting on the wall. “The statistics indicate that it is really a matter of ‘when, and not if,’ for the majority of Catholics to support civil marriage equality, reflecting a core belief that fairness is indeed at the heart of this support,” he said. “Catholics see gays and lesbians as family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, and not in the theological terms of ‘intrinsic evil’ and ‘objective disorder.’  If anything, Catholics now accurately see that language as demeaning and derogatory.”

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