Reader Marko sends in this FiveThirtyEight analysis showing that on social issues, especially homosexuality, Catholics are far more likely to be liberal than other Christians, and even Americans in general Excerpts:

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.

More, from an international perspective:

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 think most conservative Catholics intuit this, which accounts partly for their anxiety over the prospect of Rome’s waffling. They know that they are minorities within their own church, and they grieve over the possibility that the Church itself may undercut their convictions.

The Pew Center finds that an overwhelming number of US Catholics aged 18 to 29 accept homosexuality (85 percent) and support same-sex marriage (75 percent). More worryingly for conservative Catholics, when the question is asked of weekly massgoers, who are by definition more likely to be involved in the faith and in their parish, the number of overall pro-SSM Catholics is an astonishing 45 percent. Only 44 percent of weekly massgoers support the Church’s teaching, which is to oppose same-sex marriage. The last 11 percent presumably don’t know how they feel. Given the strong cultural currents moving toward full acceptance of gay marriage, there is no reason to believe that when they do make their minds up, that all, or even most, of those undecided Catholics will break for the Church’s position. In fact, given that Pew’s analysis doesn’t break out the weekly massgoers by age group, it is likely that the opposition to SSM is heavily weighted toward the seniors, a group that is literally dying out.

So, is it the case that the Catholic Church has to liberalize on these issues to attract disaffected Catholics? I wouldn’t say so at all. In a survey published in March, Pew polled American Catholics on their thoughts about Pope Francis. Money graf:

But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.

So, this is the dilemma the Pope and the bishops face: Western nations (North and South America, and Europe) are liberalizing radically on homosexuality, and so are many Catholics. But there is no evidence that the liberalized attitudes symbolized (rightly or wrongly) by Pope Francis are making any difference in the participation of Catholics in the life of the Church. In other words, the Catholic Church is not regaining liberals it has lost, or who have drifted away from engagement with the faith. At the same time, Rome runs the very real risk of alienating the orthodox core that remains faithful to its teachings. Where will that leave the Church?

This is not to say that the Roman church doesn’t need to develop a better set of pastoral practices regarding divorce and homosexuality. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. The question shouldn’t be off limits. But as the controversies coming out of the Synod in this past week have demonstrated, the Pope and his men are playing with fire. One way or another, the Catholic Church, like all Christian churches, is going to experience significant decline in the West in the decades to come. The Church will, as Pope Benedict XVI predicted, be smaller. No doubt about it. The children of today’s Christian progressives will likely be tomorrow’s secularists. The future of Christianity in the West depends on the orthodox and their families. It is very hard to get religious progressives to see this, but there it is. If the Pope isn’t careful, he could suppress and alienate those who are the most faithful to the Church, without any gain whatsoever.

That said, as these polls reveal, the ocean between Rome and the United States is not just the one called the Atlantic.

 

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