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Catholics and Gay Marriage: Caution with Numbers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 23, 2011

Our Catholic World News story is headlined Practicing Catholics more likely than general public to back homosexual unions, and we report that:

Only 31% of Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly oppose granting legal recognition to homosexual unions, according to a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute. 64% favor some sort of legal recognition of homosexual unions, with 26% favoring same-sex marriage and 38% favoring homosexual civil unions.

Well, maybe so, but this latest survey sure gives an odd impression, and one that appears to contradict the findings of many similar studies, including one done by the Pew Research Center late last year. These other studies have suggested repeatedly that the more one attends Mass, the more likely one is to reflect Church teachings in the polls.

Part of the problem is in the way the results are explained. For example, deep in the same Public Religion Research Institute study, we find this telling statement:

Only about 1-in-4 (26%) Catholics who attend services weekly or more favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to 43% of Catholics who attend once or twice a month, and 59% of Catholics who attend a few times a year or less.

And the detailed text actually expresses an earlier conclusion a little differently:

…even among Catholics who attend services weekly or more, only about one-third (31%) say there should be no legal recognition for a gay couple’s relationships, a view held by just 13% of those who attend once or twice per month and 16% of those who attend less often.

In other words, what the survey is really telling us is that Catholics committed enough to attend Church weekly or more (that is, practicing Catholics in the traditional sense) overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, but these same people are not quite prepared to rule out any possible form of legal recognition of what we might call gay households, with attendant civil benefits. Insofar as the results lead us to question the Catholicity of the frequent church-goers, they actually tell us very little about the Faith of the respondents. Instead, they reveal a characteristic Catholic and American reluctance to deny to others what the Faith does not insist be denied. This may be an unfortunate generosity, but it is not a doctrinal issue. (That I believe Catholics should have a keener sense of the demands of the common good in these matters is made eminently clear in a previous On the Culture entry, The End of Paralysis.)

Indeed, one of the points made in the study is that the more a particular survey question emphasizes that it is asking about some legal recognition other than true marriage, the less Catholics are concerned about it. Put another way, the more often people go to Church, the keener they are to reserve true marriage for heterosexual couples, as the Church teaches they must.

There was nothing inaccurate in our Catholic World News report, and the bullet points at the beginning of the PRRI document gave pretty much the same negative overall impression, as if the results were somehow new or startling. But once again we see that it is far too easy to get the wrong impression when numbers and categories are thrown around quickly and out of context. Statistics must be handled something like comments about God. Each comment represents but a single facet of the whole, but if one asserts any facet out of context, then people start drawing false conclusions.

Things are not nearly as bad as the reader might imagine from a quick review either of our report or of the PRRI’s own summary. It is important to note, I think, that there is little new here, and that the results are not significantly different than they have been in the recent past. Perhaps this merely proves the old adage about lies, damn lies, and statistics. Certainly it reminds us that, in dealing with real people who are reflecting on difficult issues and responding to confusing questions, statistics can be, in a word, dangerous.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bnewman - Mar. 27, 2011 9:27 PM ET USA

    Gil125. Yes catechesis and homiletics are important, but not enough. Most parish priest are fine men but they are now working under a disadvantage. In the past,there was great overlap between societal values and Christian values: respect for the clergy was commonplace. But our society now is one of rapidly disappearing values, like respect for the unborn. The Church cannot follow the popular culture in this trend and remain Catholic. Catholics have to take sides.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Mar. 26, 2011 4:37 PM ET USA

    Mankind had been kicking Jesus in the teeth since His first appearance on earth. The mystery of God's grace, who hears and takes in His message, and who will not, continues. He is at work in spite of some weak clergy and indifferent laity.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Mar. 25, 2011 2:32 PM ET USA

    swindoner, I think the answer to the question you raise is really quite simple. Catechesis. Homiletics. If our priests did something more than re-read or paraphrase the Gospel in each homily, the people might know better what the Church teaches on this and many more subjects.

  • Posted by: kman - Mar. 25, 2011 1:53 PM ET USA

    These types as studies makes as much sense as one that states "31% of practicing vegetarians eat meat."

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Mar. 24, 2011 2:22 PM ET USA

    I'm not sure that merely serious catechesis is the solution. Many (perhaps most) Catholics know the Church's teaching on this subject and they don't care. They've long since ceased regarding the Church as anything other than a wafer-dispenser. As a Teacher? Hardly.

  • Posted by: Hal - Mar. 24, 2011 1:31 PM ET USA

    I agree that it is still not good news and worse news for any understanding of the importance of traditional marriage on any level, in any meaningful sense.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Mar. 23, 2011 10:49 PM ET USA

    OK, good,this a more encouraging interpretation. However although the data might be an exaggeration, it still suggests the power of the popular culture to influence Catholics rather than their Faith: unfortunately. More positively it provokes questions as to how this might be reversed.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Mar. 23, 2011 6:57 PM ET USA

    Good explanation, although it is still not good news.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Mar. 23, 2011 6:23 PM ET USA

    Things are as bad as this reader thinks they are. I've read a number of polls on this subject and one thing is very clear - the trend is not in our favor, even among Catholics. Here in Maryland we came within an eyelash of passing a same sex law just weeks ago. Unless the Bishops and pastors undertake a serious catechesis on this subject, same sex marriage will become the law of the land in more and more states.

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