The Evolving Catholic Mind

Divorce, abortion and contraception are just a few topics that Catholics around the world no longer hold a consolidated opinion about, according to a recent survey conducted by U.S. Spanish-language network Univision.

The poll, which included over 12,000 Catholics from 12 different countries, revealed that Catholics are largely split over many hot topics. These differences are particularly noticeable between African and Asian countries, which are by and large developing nations, and European, North American and Latin American countries.

Image courtesy of starfunker226/Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy of starfunker226/Wikimedia Commons.

Western countries tend to take a less traditional approach to these issues, while countries like the Philippines stick to Church doctrine. For instance, 59% of American Catholics believe that women should be allowed to become priests while only 21% of Catholics in the Philippines believe so.

Gay marriage, a highly publicized topic in American politics, also showcases dissonance between different groups of Catholics: 40% of Catholics in the United States oppose the matter versus 99% of African Catholics.

Questions surrounding reproductive issues are highly controversial as well. Despite the church’s disapproval of contraceptives, 78% of Catholics from all countries surveyed support their use. These rates are even higher in Latin America, where contraceptives have a 90% approval rating.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Jonathunder/Wikimedia Commons

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Photo courtesy of Jonathunder/Wikimedia Commons

Latin America also shows high rates of support for abortion; 68% believe abortion should be allowed in some cases, while only 26% of Catholics in the Philippines agree with this statement.

Disagreements on these issues have persisted for decades, especially regarding the issue of birth control. Jose Casanova, a sociologist of religion at Georgetown University, recognizes that the church cannot accept the idea that sex and religion are mutually exclusive, but it also cannot enforce practices that many Catholics blatantly disregard.

"Unless they face it,” Casanova told The Washington Post, “the church will be in trouble.”

The poll also suggests a correlation between age and the nature of one's religious beliefs. In Argentina, for example, 58% of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 34 support gay marriage, compared to 27% of Argentinian Catholics over the age of 55. Conversely, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines and Uganda, all age groups held about the same stance with a vast majority opposing same-sex marriage.

This discrepancy in attitude based on age reinforces the growing evidence that Africa and the Philippines continue to focus on traditional values, while, in the Western world, younger generations are breaking away from traditional Catholic views.

Photo courtesy of Pope Francis/Facebook

Photo courtesy of Pope Francis/Facebook

The beliefs of college-aged Americans are consistent with this trend as well: 65% believe abortion should be allowed in some cases, 86% support contraceptives, 64% think priests should be allowed to marry and 61% disagree with the policy that divorced individuals cannot receive communion.

The Catholic Church in the modern world plays a much different role than it did in previous centuries where Church doctrine was treated as law, and those who failed to abide often faced excommunication or other punishment.

“The church has lost its ability to dictate what people do,” says Ronald Inglehart, founding president of the World Values Survey, an ongoing global research project. He says that the Church has to “hold together two increasingly divergent constituencies.”

Many speculate that Pope Francis will use the information from this survey to do just that. His interest in popular opinion is consistent with his continual efforts to show “openness to culture,” as reporter Michelle Boorstein says. Francis’ short papacy has been celebrated for its focus on mercy and inclusion.

Others criticize Francis for treating the Church as a democracy, but there are no indications that he will use this information to change Church doctrine, as doing so would be intrinsically difficult given the difference in opinion and the long tradition of Catholic beliefs. As the world makes advances in medicine and social issues, the Church must be prepared to find ways to present its stances on these integral aspects of modern life.

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