Research results have consistently shown that US Catholics nationally are more supportive of gay rights (including gay marriage), and do not agree with the Vatican teaching that homosexual relationships are morally wrong. What has not been clear from research is why this should be, when the formal Vatican doctrine, and the publicly stated position of the bishops, is so different. The same conundrum was posed even more sharply this month in Argentina, where polls showed that in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, where the bishops very publicly opposed it, 70% of the population supported the introduction of full family equality.
In California, two separate polls released within days, by Field and by PRRI, confirm the patterns we have become accustomed to: over the longer term view, support for equality has grown steadily; Democrats and independents are supportive, Republicans are not; younger voters are strongly supportive - and Californian Catholics narrowly support marriage equality.The difficulty with most research results for demographic sub-samples, such as "women", or "Latinos" , 0r "over 50's" is that without deeper statistical analysis, it is never quite clear whether the differences seen between groups are specific to those groups, or just the result of hidden demographics distorting the groups being examined.
The great thing about the research from PRRI, is that it addresses that problem by taking a two-level split of a large sample, to consider religion within ethnic groups. It thus standardises for ethnicity when considering religion - and the results are truly fascinating, especially against the background of marriage equality in Argentina. It turns out that among all religious groupings, Latino Catholics are the most supportive of marriage equality - and Latino Protestants are the most strongly opposed. In California, what appears to be Catholic support for marriage equality is specifically Latino Catholic support: White Catholic views are pretty similar to White (mainline) Protestants. Conversely, the strong Latino Catholic support does not show up in overall Latino support, because it is balanced by strong opposition from Latino Protestants.
It gets better. If the report simply left it there, that would be interesting, but would simply beg a couple of further questions. Why should Latino/a Catholics differ so strongly from White Catholics, and even more strongly from Latino/a Protestants? Why are Catholics and Protestants so different to Evangelicals, who are very strongly opposed? Why are Blacks overall less supportive than either Whites or Latinos? So, it is great to report that it does not stop there. There is plenty of real good meat in this report worth chewing over, both theologically and politically, which offers some real insight into the reasons for these discrepancies.
One dramatic impact on thinking about marriage, is what people are hearing from their clergy. Catholics are more likely than other groups to be hearing anything at all from clergy about homosexuality, and White Catholics less than Latino Catholics. Both Catholic groups, together with White Protestants, are the least likely to be hearing negative statements. Some Latino Catholics are hearing a message that flatly contradicts the position of the bishops: almost one in ten report they are hearing supportive words from their Catholic priests about homosexuality.
(With the continuing debate in some Protestant groups about gay ordination, it is important to note that a small majority of Protestant clergy seem more likely to support than to discourage gay and lesbian relationships, by 21% to 19% ).
This has huge implications for the push for marriage equality, for inclusion in church, and for the Catholic Church in particular. First, it confirms once again that religious belief and homosexual relationships are not incompatible. It is simply untrue that "Christians" as a whole reject homosexuality, or same sex marriage. A growing minority of Christians, and some clergy, support such relationships. This increasing support within the churches will ease the way towards greater LGBT inclusion in church. For the Catholic bishops, the signs are ominous. At a national level, their voices have been among the most prominent arguing against gay marriage, gay adoption, civil unions, and protection from discrimination. But this message from the top of the pyramid does not seem to be getting through on the ground. It is remarkable that Catholics are the least likely of all groups to be hearing negative messages about homosexuality from their priests, and even more so that some Catholics are being told to be supportive, or are hearing messages that are neutral rather than critical.
Why this disconnect? Could it be that the local priests are in closer contact, with real people. both gay and straight, and so more in touch with reality? Another finding in the research is that people's views on homosexuality will be strongly influenced by the parents of gay men and lesbians. Any priest is likely to have several such parents in his congregation, in addition to some gay people themselves who have not been driven away from the church, or into hiding in a closet. This direct personal knowledge will be showing him the falsity of official discourse, that we are not "disordered", driven by our sexuality away from God, or interested only in "gratuitous self-indulgence". Rather than repeating the lies, many would simply prefer to hold their tongues - and some are taking the remarkable step, given their dependent position, of directly contradicting the bishops' message.
If the bishops are unable to speak directly to gay men, lesbians or their parents, they would be wise to at least listen carefully to what their priests could be telling them. If they continue to not do so, they will simply continue to lose further credibility, and will suffer greater loss of authority, just as they have already done on contraception, and as the Argentinian bishops have now done on marriage equality.