Pope Francis raised eyebrows among church officials and lay Catholics alike this past weekend after he sent a message to American bishops asking them to make the church “more welcoming” and instructing them to uncover what American Catholics really think about same-sex marriage, divorce, and contraception.
The charge was part of an unusual effort by the Vatican to conduct a global survey of Catholic laypeople, with church leaders asking bishops to gauge opinions of parishioners on marriage equality, contraception, and divorce. The news is getting a lot of attention in progressive Catholic circles, in part because the survey—which thousands have already filled out online for their local diocese—will likely expose the growing divide between Catholic leadership and the laity on so-called “family issues,” with parishioners often holding far more progressive views then their established leadership. This is especially significant given that the survey, which is being distributed to bishops in the form of a questionnaire, is meant to help prepare for next October’s “extraordinary synod,” a gathering of select bishops called by the pope as he seeks council on “Pastoral Challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”
The Catholic church currently condemns homosexual activity, denies communion to those who get a divorce and remarry without an annulment, and decries the use of contraception. But while Pope Francis hasn’t yet altered church teaching on these issues, he has dramatically changed the tone in which they are discussed; Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, advocated for a “smaller but purer” brand of conservative Catholicism, but Francis has taken steps to broaden the reach of the church by refusing to pass judgment on homosexuality and saying that the church is too “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
Thus, the pontiff’s call for a worldwide survey of Catholics seems to be a recognition of two things rarely considered by recent popes: (1) that the perspective of the world’s one billion lay Catholics should be taken seriously when discussing church teaching, and (2) that despite the doggedly conservative positions of most Catholic leaders, any modern attempt to evangelize has to acknowledge the large percentages — if not the growing majority — of Catholic parishioners who now openly espouse progressive religious views on issues of marriage equality, contraception, and divorce.
Just look at North and South America, home to almost half of the world’s Catholics. Catholics in the United States — the country with the fourth-largest Catholic population — are famously progressive on issues of homosexuality, contraception, and divorce, at least compared to church officials. In fact, recent polling shows that American Catholics are actually more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other American Christian group, with nearly three-quarters favoring either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43 percent) or offering them civil unions (31 percent). They’re also ardent supporters of contraception: the vast majority of U.S. Catholics — 82 percent — think using birth control is morally acceptable, most believe employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception, and 98 percent of Catholic women who have had sex say they have used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. As for divorce, a 2012 Pew Research poll showed that a plurality of U.S. Catholics (45 percent) believed getting a divorce was not a moral issue, and 32 percent said it morally acceptable.
This progressive brand of Catholicism can be found south of the equator as well. Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country, claims around 130 million self-declared Catholics—or 64.6 percent of the population. Yet a recent Pew survey found that 65 percent of Brazilians—including many Catholics—think homosexuality should be accepted by society. This helps explain why Brazil legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 despite opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, and why it plays host to the world’s largest LGBT Pride celebration—the São Paulo Gay Pride Parade, which drew 4 million people in 2009. Brazilians also have unparalleled access to contraception through the country’s widely available public health facilities, and 80 percent of Brazilian women of childbearing age use some form of artificial contraception.
Similar trends can be seen across the Atlantic. More than a quarter of the world’s Catholics live in Europe, many of whom are concentrated in the nation which currently surrounds the Vatican: Italy. Almost 88 percent of the Italian population identifies as Catholic, yet more than 87 percent of the population differs with the church hierarchy over issues of divorce.
France and Spain—countries with the sixth and seventh largest Catholic populations, respectively—have also both passed marriage equality legislation with broad support from their citizens. In addition, the vast majority of women in Italy, France, and Spain use birth control, and as of 1998, 55 percent of Catholic Spaniards disagreed with the church’s prohibition of contraception.
Granted, there are also millions of conservative Catholics who agree with the traditional Catholic position on these issues, and church officials across the globe continue to push countries such at the United States to enact legislation that reflects their views. What’s more, although the Vatican’s survey will likely shed light on this progressive trend among the laity, next year’s synod is only allowed to make recommendations, not alter church teaching. Even if Pope Francis did want to change the Vatican’s position on these issues, it’s unlikely he will overturn thousands of years of Catholic tradition just because the laity hold a position contrary to church teaching.
Nevertheless, the Vatican survey exposes Francis’ willingness to take the views of the parishioners seriously, and hints at an emerging theological perspective in which church leaders fully recognize God working at all levels of the church—not just from the top down. And when it comes to issues of homosexuality, contraception, and divorce, the faithful are clearly moving in a very different direction than the traditional religious establishment. The real question is how will Pope Francis, who has promised to create a “more welcoming” church, respond?
Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. Follow them on Twitter @CAPfaith.