Roman Catholic bishops released a draft document this week calling for the church to welcome gays, unmarried couples and people who have divorced. The document is proving to be highly controversial among conservative Catholics, and the official English translation already has had some of the welcoming tone revised out of it. But several public-opinion polls suggest that Catholics in many countries are ready to accept such change — more ready than members of many other religions.
In the U.S, the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, has been asking about divorce and gay rights since the early 1970s, and about cohabitation since 1994 (typically at least every two years). At my request, GSS director Tom W. Smith sent data, broken down by religion, for half a dozen questions. In their answers, American Catholics consistently have shown themselves to be more tolerant of divorce, gay rights and unmarried cohabitation than have American Protestants and Americans overall — especially in recent years.
In all but one of the 14 GSS polls over the last quarter century, more Catholics than Protestants said divorce should be easier to get by law. In every survey since 1973, more Catholics than Protestants said gays should be allowed to speak publicly, teach and have books they wrote available in libraries. (If those questions don’t sound like they go very far by today’s standards, keep in mind that the Vatican isn’t going all that far, either, and that when these questions were asked in 1973, more than a third of Americans didn’t agree — half, in the case of teaching.) Also in each survey, more Catholics than Protestants said gay sex was “not wrong at all.” And all four times the GSS asked whether a couple living together unmarried was acceptable, more Catholics than Protestants said it was.
A similar pattern emerges in recent international surveys. We didn’t have data broken down by religion in individual countries, so instead I examined how attitudes within countries corresponded with the percentage of their population that is Catholic. In general, the higher a share of a country’s residents are Catholic, the higher percentage of residents express tolerance toward divorce and towards gays. The effect isn’t huge, but it’s consistent.
I examined the responses to three survey questions by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. One asked if respondents believe homosexuality is morally acceptable. Another asked if homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society. A third asked if divorce is morally acceptable. For each question, I compared the percentage who said homosexuality or divorce was acceptable with the percentage of the population that is Catholic, for those countries for which I could find the data. And in each case, the correlation between the Catholic population percentage and the percentage who accepted divorce or homosexuality was positive (with R ranging from 0.39 to 0.54).
Methodology note: I used the most recent United Nations religion data. For countries missing from the U.N. data set, I used data from Catholic-hierarchy.org. For 17 countries, I had data from both sources, which I used to make sure the two sources were consistent. They were very closely correlated — R=0.96 — but the Catholic-hierarchy.org estimate of the percentage of the population that is Catholic was, on average, 10 percent (not percentage points) higher than the U.N.’s estimate for the same country, so I adjusted the Catholic-hierarchy.org estimates downward accordingly. When I was done, I had estimates for the Catholic population share for between 34 and 43 countries for each of the three Pew questions.
CORRECTION (October 17, 5:48 p.m.): An earlier version of this post used an incorrect estimate for the percentage of Czechs who are Catholics, resulting in errors in the last two charts. The charts have been updated.