New Poll Shows Strong Catholic Support for Gay Rights

It’s a popular stereotype that Catholics are more conservative than their Protestant counterparts, but a new report reveals that Catholics are more supportive of gay and lesbian rights than the general population and other Christians. But, depending on how one reads the numbers, the study could be a mixed blessing for marriage equality supporters.

On the issue of marriage, the report [pdf], compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute using past polls and studies, showed “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.”

The report also showed strong Catholic support for other gay rights issues with 73 percent supporting laws against workplace discrimination and 60 percent favoring adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

“These numbers surprise many Americans given their presumptions about Catholics,” said Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University.

Schneck also pointed out what he called another “striking feature” of the report—a feature that marriage equality supporters may find sobering in an otherwise upbeat report. Schneck points out the “much higher Catholic interest, especially among white, non-Latino Catholics, in civil unions as compared to other denominations and Americans generally. Catholics appear to like civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage at a higher rate than other groups.”

Schneck admitted upfront that “I am among that population of Roman Catholics who oppose same sex marriage. I don’t think my analysis is colored by that but I think it’s only fair to be
up front about it.” Still, though, support for civil unions frequently, over time, translates into support for full equality, so his claim that Catholic support for civil unions could be bad news for full equality is likely off the mark.

“If Catholics that support civil unions are counted among those favoring same-sex marriage, then a majority of Catholics support same-sex marriage,” he said. “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.”

Even if the numbers are read as Catholics leaning against full marriage equality, the report still contains good news for gays and lesbians. An overwhelming majority of Catholics (69 percent) believe that sexual orientation is fixed and cannot be changed by “ex-gay” therapies. When asked if sexual activity between people of the same sex is sinful, 56 percent said no. That compares to 46 percent of the general population.

Dr. Michele Dillon, professor and chair of Department of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, said the generous position taken by Catholic laity on gay rights issues stems from a sense of independence in the pews.

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

Even though the laity may be open to marriage equality or other rights for gays and lesbians, don’t expect these numbers to sway the Bishops, Dillon warned. Catholic Bishops have played a large role in opposing same-sex marriage issues, including the latest attempt to pass marriage equality in Maryland.

“They’re not going to be distracted by any polls and certainly not what the laity says about these things. We’ll certainly 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,” Dillon said.

Another surprise in the report is the strong Latino Catholic support for same-sex marriage with 45 percent favoring marriage and another 22 percent supporting civil unions. That, the report shows, may have a lot to do with the age factor around gay rights issues. Many polls show a growing trend among the young to support full marriage equality over civil unions. The Latino Catholic population, in general, is younger than the white Catholic population. That may be the best news for marriage equality supporters, said Dillon.

“The younger generation are going to be getting older and voting in more and more numbers and they’re going to be pushing the liberalization because I think, to them, being gay is a very normal thing and they can’t understand why it’s such a contested issue either religiously or politically,” she said.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)