What does it mean to be a good Catholic? According to a new survey, Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape, 86% of U.S. Catholics don’t think that following the Vatican’s teachings is the only way to be a loyal member of the faith. Almost 9-in-10 (86%) American Catholics say “you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church.”
Yet Catholics are also remarkably devoted to their religious identity, even though 83% say that the clergy sexual abuse scandal has hurt the bishops’ credibility. Three-quarters say that “being Catholic is a very important part of who I am.” But the authority of the Vatican, and some core Catholic doctrines may not be, for many, an important part of being Catholic.
As PRRI found in a recent survey, one of the most important divisions between the Catholic hierarchy and American lay Catholics was on gay and lesbian issues. Over the past 25 years, the number of Catholics who say church leaders have the “final say” on gay and lesbian issues was cut in half, from 32% to only 16%. By contrast, those who say that individuals make the ultimate decision about gay and lesbian issues increased dramatically from 39% to 57%. Half of Catholics believe that gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination as clergy with no special requirements and nearly half (46%) say the Church has been too conservative on the issue of homosexuality in general.
Although there is tension between Church teachings and the laity’s beliefs on some key political questions, the survey also shows that most American Catholics maintain a strong religious identity by focusing on the spiritual essentials at Catholicism’s heart: the resurrection of Jesus (73%), helping the poor (67%), devotion to the Virgin Mary (64%), and the centrality of the sacraments (63%). Given these numbers, it looks as though the Vatican’s recent document on financial reform might strike more of a chord with American Catholics than the bishops’ recent attempts to oppose same-sex marriage in New York.