Change of Heart: Dramatic Change in the World’s Largest Church

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Country by Country comparison of LGBT attitudes

Click this chart to read Pew’s entire report on “The Global Divide on Homosexuality”

The Catholic church often is cited in the debate over religious inclusion of LGBT men and women—even by evangelical leaders who not too many decades ago had no interest in working with Catholic allies. Critics of same-sex marriage often point out: The Catholic church will never allow it. And veteran Vatican watchers agree that an official blessing on gay marriage seems unlikely. Among the key reasons that the Vatican is central to this debate:

  • IT’S OLD AND BIG—The Catholic church is widely viewed as the world’s oldest Christian denomination and it certainly is the world’s largest organized religious group. The Vatican claims that more than a billion of the world’s men, women and children are Catholic, a group that represents half of all Christians on the planet. The Roman Catholic church is about the same size as Islam, which is not a single organized religious group.
  • MORE TRADITIONAL THAN PROTESTANTS—Catholic tradition and Vatican doctrine view marriage as a sacrament, setting the theological bar for change very high, while most mainline Protestants do not call the rite of marriage a sacrament. In fact, Catholic doctrine views marriage in a much more restrictive way than American Protestants. For example, divorced Catholics still are unable to remarry in the church without first going through a lengthy annulment process, discounting the authenticity of their earlier marriage. American Protestant churches have jumped past the biblical debate on remarriage after divorce and no longer regard the practice as controversial.
  • WEIGHT OF AFRICA—The Catholic church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, home to some of the world’s most anti-gay ethnic cultures.
  • POLITICAL FUNDING—The Catholic hierarchy has significant funds, at the discretion of regional bishops, that can be poured into anti-gay-rights campaigns.

HOWEVER, there is, indeed, dramatic change in the world’s largest church. Across several continents, the world’s Catholic population already is supporting LGBT inclusion in general—and a large portion of the church’s membership supports gay marriages or unions.

The chart with today’s story clearly shows the majorities in many of the world’s most populous Catholic countries supporting acceptance of gay men and women. This chart does not single out Catholic respondents, but a growing body of research does just that after extensive polling of Catholics.

The most complete to date is a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report in 2011, drawing on surveys and other research in 2009 and 2010. If anything, this PRRI report understates the widespread Catholic support for LGBT inclusion. All other nationwide research on this issue shows American attitudes shifting to approve same-gender marriage in the last couple of years. Part 2 in this series shows Pew’s 2014 polling with 59 percent of Catholics approving of allowing such marriages.

The PRRI study found that Catholics have widely accepted their church’s call for compassion toward marginalized groups. The PRRI report concludes: “Catholics strongly believe that society should accept gay and lesbian relationships. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) agree that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society. One in four disagree, but less than 1-in-10 (9 percent) say that they completely disagree. Among the general public, roughly 6 in 10 (62 percent) say that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, 12 points lower than support among Catholics.”

Are you surprised that Catholics are a leading group in many nations, urging LGBT inclusion?

Do you think the church’s leadership would ever consider changing church doctrine on marriage?

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