Many American Catholics are excited for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in late September, but that doesn’t mean they agree on everything the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church stand for. Data from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday indicates that many American Catholics are comfortable with nontraditional families and often don’t consider birth control, remarriage or homosexuality to be sins, despite the official Catholic doctrine.
“This may be in part because Francis’ American flock is experiencing life in all its modern complexity,” wrote Pew researchers about the results of the survey. About a quarter of American Catholics have been divorced, for example, and more than 40 percent of them have cohabited with a romantic partner outside of marriage at some point in their lives.
Researchers at Pew surveyed 5,122 adults who identify as Catholic in May and June of this year. The survey touched on a wide range of family issues that are hot topics in the church right now. The pope is likely to discuss many of these subjects when he attends the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this month.
Anti-Abortion Views Not Essential
The survey even reflects surprising views on abortion. That's a subject the pope made headlines with Tuesday when he declared that, during the Year of Mercy, all priests will have the ability to absolve repenting individuals of abortion, which is considered a grave sin by the church. Most Catholics in the U.S. -- 57 percent -- do believe that terminating a pregnancy is sinful but ranked it low on a list of 10 beliefs that are essential to being a Catholic. About one-third of all respondents said opposition to abortion was essential to being a Catholic.
Other findings in the survey include attitudes about homosexuality: Half of all Catholics don’t believe it’s a sin, although the number drops to 27 percent among Catholics who regularly attend church. Contraception, which is considered verboten by the church, is not an issue for American Catholics: More than three quarters don’t believe it’s a sin -- and that includes those who attend Mass regularly. Seventy percent of respondents said divorce is not a sin, and 65 percent don't believe cohabitation outside of marriage is sinful.
But even though American Catholics feel comfortable rejecting certain doctrinal beliefs, they don’t see that as cause for abandoning the faith. Seven out of 10 respondents said they would not leave the Roman Catholic Church for any reason.
"People are more educated and making up their minds on these issues -- not just accepting what [the] father says from the pulpit," the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, told NBC News. "People now have a lot more personal experience with these things," he added. "They have brothers and sisters and friends who are gay, who are divorced, and they don't want to consign them to hell."