Non-Serious Catholics Are More Tolerant Than You Think March 28, 2011

Non-Serious Catholics Are More Tolerant Than You Think

by Jesse Galef –

You love data, right? Of course you do, how silly of me. Everyone loves sifting through survey data. Well, the Public Religion Research Institute released a fascinating survey last week on the political views of Catholic Americans. One finding getting attention is that Catholics are particularly likely to support marriage equality:

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.

The numbers are promising, particularly for questions that explicitly describe a civil marriage “like you get at city hall”: support jumps 28 points, from 43% to 71%.

This must mean that the Catholic church is evolving and teaching its followers to be more accepting and supportive, right?

Well, not exactly:

To summarize: The less frequently the person goes to church (or reports to, at least) the more likely they are to support the right of gays to marry.

Fancy that.

I suspect there’s a “cultural Catholic” phenomenon playing into the equation. For example, look at another of their findings:

Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks for how it is handling the issue of homosexuality. Less than 4-in-10 (39%) Catholics give their own church top marks (a grade of either an A or a B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.

People might identify as Catholic even if they don’t believe the dogma or disagree with their church’s stance.

On the surface, I can’t say that the teachings of Catholicism are friendly to gays and lesbians. It seems plausible to me that there are just a lot of people identifying as Catholic who don’t believe those teachings. And the more seriously people take their religion, the less likely they are to support equality.

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  • Former Catholic here. Coming from the northeast (Boston area) I think it’s fair to say that saying you’re Catholic is like saying you’re Jewish; it’s a cultural thing. I think it’s a “blessing” that Catholicism is so screwed up right now that it’s pushing away its followers.

  • Ali


    My entire family is culturally Catholic. Same with almost every person I went to school with.

    99% of them believe in equal rights for homosexuals, and pretty much disagree with the pope on every moral issue.

    They just like the idea of heaven. That’s the extent of their Catholic beliefs. But they do like the title.

  • vexorian

    This is completely true in my country. Up until recently it was officially a Catholic, non-secular country. But most people are really just cultural Catholics rather than actual Catholics. It reflects everywhere, and not just in the homosexuality aspect but also on abortion. To say that “day-after” pills managed to get a whole market without really much or any uproar…

    One thing to note though, is that even between people I could consider really catholic, they in practice end up going to church only 2 times a month in average, and even in that group the tolerance (43,43,13) is actually rather large in comparison to other religious groups.

  • I think it’s important to make a distinction between catholics who support the right to same-sex marriage inside versus outside the church. I’m in a Catholic High School, and even some of my Religious Studies teachers support same-sex marriage outside the church. Most of my classmates support it in the church, so there’s hope for the future.

  • There are active organizations within Catholicism arguing for not just state equality but church equality as well. They’re still a minority but they do have a growing voice. It is another example of not being able to make blanket statements of Christians any more than you can of atheists. Even the denominations officially opposed can still have a strong minority which accept, and then of course there are also the denominations that are the other way around, mostly accepting with a small minority rejecting.

  • Alice

    When I was ridiculously religious (Baptist) I was taught that Catholics were all like that and therefore going to hell. It actually surprised me when I learned the church’s official stances. All the catholics I’ve ever known were gay or in support of gay rights.

  • Rich Wilson

    I seem to recall (but can’t find at the moment) that a coalition of Christian Churches in CA was against Prop 8, on the grounds that it meant the state dictating who a church could not marry. That is, they felt it was up to an individual church to decide if a couple could be married or not within that church, and prop 8 took that right away.

  • ButchKitties

    I agree with others who say that being Catholic, at least in the US, is as much a cultural identification as it is a religious one. Catholics were generally born into the church; it’s not something they joined voluntarily. (Anecdote: everyone I know who converted to Catholicism did so not out of a real religious conversion, but because he/she was marrying a Catholic and there was a ton of familial pressure to convert.)

    It’s pretty obvious that a lot of American Catholics flat out ignore major teachings of the Church. When my mom was little, there were lots of families in her church with 10+ kids. She knew one family with 22 kids. When I go to her church today, the big families have maybe 4 or 5 kids. The Vatican hasn’t changed its stance on birth control. American Catholics just blatantly ignore the Vatican’s stance. It’s a pleasant half-surprise that they also ignore the Vatican’s official stance on gay marriage. Just wish they’d take the next step and leave the Church altogether.

  • Ben

    But you know Catholics aren’t “real” Christians. /snark

  • I’m from the UK, and I’ve only been living in the US for a couple of months, so I can’t say how representative my experience is, but I’ve always found those Catholics I’ve known to be among the most tolerant of Christians. One Catholic friend suggested to me that Catholicism, with its confessions, encourages a view that a person’s behaviour is between that person and God, and not for others to judge (there may be a negative reflection of this attitude to be seen in the Church’s lenient treatment of paedophile priests). I’m not sure how true that is, and such institutions as the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland certainly paint a very different picture. However, I have certainly found more hatred and extreme views among Protestants than Catholics in my life.

  • OverlapingMagisteria

    I’ll echo what others are saying, that “cultural Catholic” is what describes most Catholics I know. I was raised Catholic, but eventually learned that my family had some very non-Catholic ideas about religion: that Jesus may have not really died but just passed out, that non-Christians don’t all go to hell, and The Da-Vinci Code was not at all scandalous; they didn’t see what the big deal was even if Jesus had a kid.

  • Gregory Marshall

    Well, there is a reason why they have the term “cafeteria Catholics”.

  • Alt 3

    I’d have to agree about the “cultural Catholicism” thing. I know quite a few Catholics that have shown they pay little to no attention to what the Church actually says about things. As a matter of fact, when my brother was getting married the pastor apparently thought it a good idea to ask everyone what religion they were during the rehearsal and three of my cousins from different sides of the family answered “Catholic, but I don’t believe in god.”

    Catholicism has gotten to the point that it’s more of a heritage than a religion. I’d have no problem with this except that many of these people are probably inclined to answer “Catholic” on a census and that just gives more voice to an institution that has proven itself time and again to be morally bankrupt.

  • Ibis

    In 1969, same-sex sexual activity, contraception, and abortion were made legal in Canada under a bill introduced by a Catholic, Pierre Trudeau (under a United Church PM).

    In 1992, the ban on gays serving openly in the Canadian military was dropped. Brian Mulroney, a Catholic, was PM.

    In 2005, a bill was passed making same-sex marriage legal in all jurisdictions in Canada, with Paul Martin, another Catholic as PM.

    The approval by most Catholics of moral, progressive stances on homosexuality, abortion rights, and birth control does not surprise me in the least. Even the Catholic clergy I’ve known have been largely on the right side on most of these issues. Many of them would also approve of priests being allowed to marry and women being accepted into the priesthood a la the Anglicans.

  • MaryD

    Wow| 43% of American catholics believe in same-sex marriage; but then they beleve in god too.

    So the delusioned are deluded, what’s new?

    Marriage, by definition, is between two people of different sex and if you can’t understand that don’t trouble your little minds with the existence or not of ‘higher powers’.

  • Ibis

    @MaryD By whose definition?

  • The majority of people that say we should allow same-sex civil unions instead of same-sex marriage is generally misinformed about what a civil union is and why it isn’t enough. It simply doesn’t carry with it the same benefits. From custody rights to legal representation to taxes… civil unions don’t guarantee any of it.

  • Thackerie

    Apparently, MaryD is not a Bible believer. Otherwise she’d know that marriage is between one man and any number of wives and/or concubines.

  • I remember Susan Jacoby mentioning this about many Catholics not agreeing with the Church’s official position on various topics. Honestly, I never understood cultural Catholicism. I understand it when people say they believe in God but don’t want to be associated with a religion they disagree with, but I’ve never understood staying in a religion a person disagrees with so much. I do feel badly that the Church hierarchy is ignoring the views of its members and making them look bad.

    @MaryD: The definition of marriage has changed so much over the years, as we realized that it was wrong to discriminate due to race, gender, religion, etc. and as we realized that consent is essential. For example, it was once considered okay (and is still considered okay in some countries) for parents to force their kids to marry complete strangers. We realize now that marriage should not be forced and that the people involved should want to get married, etc. If heterosexuals can marry each other, as consenting adults, without other people bossing them around, then consenting adult LGBTQI people should be able to do the same.

  • Jeanette

    Anecdotal, I know, but these results totally apply to my family. Most of my extended family members were raised Catholic, so while they consider it an important part of their lives, they don’t go to church all the time and are also fairly liberal, so they support gay marriage. However, some of the older family members who are a little more into the whole Catholicism thing are totally against gay marriage and frequently post about it on facebook.

  • Pseudonym

    The discussion has been about “non-serious Catholics” or “cultural Catholics”, but I think this is missing the wider picture. This is part of a general trend which isn’t just about religion.

    You can also see it in politics. There is a strong move away from major political parties (or the mainstream thereof) and towards third parties, offshoots (e.g. the Tea Party) and independents. The UK and Australia, you may recall, both have coalition/minority governments for the first time in… well, a very long time if not forever. People still have political opinions and still vote, they just don’t want to be beholden to the two-party cartel.

    You can also see it in consumer habits. There is a strong subcultural trend away from large chain stores towards local businesses. People who prefer to get coffee from a small business coffee shop instead of Starbucks still want take-away coffee.

    Some of the people on this list are, I’m certain, “non-serious Catholics” or “cultural Catholics”. But a lot are Catholics who just don’t want to be defined by, or beholden to, large institutions, and have voted with their feet.

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