Over the past few weeks, two of the most influential figures in the global Catholic hierarchy spoke out, urging Catholics to join together in the moral struggle against same-sex marriage. Pope Benedict XVI, in a much-publicized trip to his homeland, Germany, identified same-sex marriage as a critical threat, not just to the integrity of Catholicism, but to Christianity as a whole. Closer to home, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York warned President Obama that continuing to refuse to support the Defense of Marriage Act could “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions.”
Both of these assertions signaled the Catholic hierarchy’s renewed commitment to marshaling the ranks of lay Catholics against same-sex marriage, an effort which may not be as successful as the Pope or the Archbishop would like. According to a recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute, Catholics are among the most supportive Christian denominations on same-sex marriage (52% support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 19% of white evangelical Protestants and 51% of white mainline Protestants). Catholic support for “legal agreements” that would give same-sex couples “many of the same rights as married couples” (i.e., civil unions) is even higher, at 69%. Meanwhile, only 20% of Catholics said that same-sex marriage was a critical issue, compared to immigration (48%), the federal deficit (69%), and unemployment (77%).
All of this shows that for the most part, Catholics are quite willing to selectively deviate from their hierarchy on personal or ethical issues. Last week, I pointed out that even though U.S. Catholic bishops are making an effort to organize lay Catholics against new regulations which require employers to provide insurance with no co-pay on birth control and other preventive health services for women, Catholics overwhelmingly support providing affordable contraceptives to low-income women and families.
But these departures from the Catholic leadership’s line on key issues don’t always cause Catholics to lean left; a majority of Catholics (62%) support the death penalty, while Catholic leaders often advocate for its abolition.