A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows not only that more Catholics support marriage rights for same-sex couples than other Christians [43%, while 31% support civil unions] but that they do so at a higher percentage than the general population. In fact, on every LGBT rights question, including DADT and job discrimination, a high percentage of the Catholic population supports the move toward full participation of LGBT individuals and the necessary legal protections to create the environment for that participation.
Perhaps most surprising, 70% of Catholics surveyed believe that the words of their priests in sermons can contribute to the suicides of LGBT teenagers. In other words, Catholics understand that orthodoxy from the pulpit has consequences and they’re concerned with both the means and the ends when it comes to LGBT rights
While conventional wisdom says that Catholics are generally conservative, those who understand Catholic culture aren’t terribly surprised by these findings. Here are five reasons why I believe that Catholics are more open to LGBT rights:
- (1) Catholics have an underlying commitment to social justice built upon a prominent liberal notion that we are meant to serve each other and pay attention to those who suffer most within our society. Despite the Catholic Church’s turn to orthodox positions on so many aspects of its faith, the 20th century included an adoption of liberal perspectives when it comes to social order, caring for the poor, promoting social justice, and living Gospel values. The teaching challenged many capitalistic hegemonies and called people to pay attention to those who suffer most. Against this backdrop, Catholics get the fact that LGBT folks face social injustice in a society based on hetero-normative structures, so it should come as no shock that they’d respond with compassion and a strong sense of justice.
- (2) Catholics love ritual. Ritual is integral to Catholic experience. While many of us can point to moments when we experienced really bad ritual at Catholic liturgies, ritual still remains at the core of all expressions of faith within the Catholic Church, and marriage has not escaped this reality. Catholics believe that marriage is one of the seven sacraments which leads them to take the celebration of the union between a man and a woman very seriously. There’s no need for a professional wedding planner or a lot of contemporary add-ons (the lighting of a unity candle comes to mind). Like every sacrament, core symbols show the power of the transcendent experience. Here, the rings and the words shared by the couple are enough to change two lives and all that they touch forever. Denying a ritual celebrating a fundamental human experience does not pass the smell test of a people dedicated to ritual expression of divine love. The rich and yet simple rite exemplifies the right to marriage. It speaks of commitment and a life changing “yes” to togetherness.
- (3) Catholics believe in both individuality and community. Those who practice Catholic faith are trained to make individual choices about moral behavior based on the primacy of the conscience. The idea here is that Church teaching informs the conscience but it does not absolutely rule it. While Church teaching has a privileged place within the moral formation of the person, it’s always meant to be considered in light of a particular context and the intentions of the people involved. Catholics practice the art of translation when it comes to moral decision-making and, in this practice, are highly pragmatic. The teaching of the Church does not dictate their thinking or demand blind obedience.
- (4) Catholics are highly skeptical of the sexual teaching of their Church. Ever since Pope Paul VI delivered Humanae Vitae in the 60s—the papal encyclical on sexuality which seemed incongruent with the sexual revolution driven by the advances in birth control—Catholics have largely ignored the official teaching of the Church on sexual relations within marriage and outside marriage. Teaching delivered by the celibate clergy on sexuality was seen as naïve, impractical and unresponsive to the experience of sexually-active Catholics. This was true in the early stages of the post-Humanae Vitae era and in later years when the Church refused to endorse condoms to help prevent HIV/AIDS. The Church authorities seemed more connected to the consistency of their ideology than sympathetic and responsive to the lives of people who were in trauma. You might say that Catholics responded with a collective eye roll at its leaders when they failed to allow for condoms in Africa within marriages when one of the spouses had HIV. On this, the Church teaching was unrealistic, rigid, and irresponsible.
- (5) The pedophilia crisis undermines any teaching which denies LGBT rights. It’s hard to take a church which has been in crisis around priestly pedophilia seriously when it comes to its rigid position on the rights of a sexual minority who is trying to do the right thing. The causes that underlie pedophilia within the Catholic priesthood are worthy of a robust debate. Let’s just say that many priests have chosen a double life when it comes to sexuality. They make a public proclamation about celibacy while fully realizing that they will have future sexual experiences in which they freely choose participation. A caveat: I was a Catholic priest and had an insider’s view of this duplicitous lifestyle. LGBT folks who are striving for personal joy without losing personal integrity are an interesting juxtaposition to those who have official authority to teach about sexuality while practicing it in the shadows.
In this latest survey Catholics have simply continued to show the complexity of their thinking and confounded the general sense that they’re out of touch, reactionary, and against sexual justice. In fact, we might argue that it’s precisely because they are Catholics, they get the issues related to LGBT rights.