Pope Francis waves to newlywed couples during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday (January 21, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-POPE-FAMILIES, published on January 21, 2015

Most US Catholics are fine with nontraditional families

(RNS) Families are one great reason why Pope Francis is coming to America.

Sure, he’ll address Congress and the United Nations, too. But Philadelphia -- host to the church’s World Meeting of Families and Francis' only Mass open to the general public -- is the one stop on the three-city, six-day trip where he can greet hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholic families in person.

Many in the crowd will match the church's ideal family blueprint: one man and one woman married for life and welcoming as many children as God gives them.

But many won’t. And a new survey by Pew Research finds that nontraditional family arrangements are fine with many U.S. Catholics. Indeed, many think the church should be more open to them as well.

READ: Catholic to Catholic-ish: 45% of US adults feel connected to Catholicism

The survey of 1,016 U.S. Catholic adults, released Wednesday (Sept. 2), finds:

  • 25 percent have gone through a divorce.
  • 9 percent of those who divorced have remarried.
  • 44 percent say they have lived with a romantic partner outside of marriage at some point in their lives, and 9 percent still do.
  • Those cohabitating couples and divorced Catholics who remarried without a Catholic  annulment -- grave sins in the eyes of the church -- are not eligible to receive Communion.

Those cohabitating couples and divorced Catholics who remarried without a Catholic  annulment -- grave sins in the eyes of the church -- are not eligible to receive Communion.

Pew found that “15 percent of Catholics are currently in one of those situations,” said Greg Smith, director of religion research and co-author of the survey.

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Given that obstacle, "it’s no surprise their Mass attendance is low," said Smith. Only 1 in 4 of those Catholics say they attend once a week, while 41 percent of Catholics overall say they attend weekly, Smith said.

Catholics, however, often disagree with -- even defy -- church teachings on faith and practice.

On Communion, for example, about 4 in 10 of Catholics who are not eligible for Communion say they still seek the Eucharist when they do attend Mass, Smith said.

READ: Catholic families: strong on prayer, weak on sacraments

And most Catholics, no matter what their family structure, are comfortable with a wide variety of family arrangements that the church does not encourage. The survey asked which family structures are acceptable and as good as any other for rearing children. It found:

  • 94 percent say a married mother and father is acceptable, although 4 percent of those say it isn't as good as some other arrangements.
  • 87 percent say a single parent is acceptable.
  • 84 percent say the same for unmarried parents living together.
  • 83 percent say the same for divorced parents (although Catholics have a significantly lower divorce rate than Protestants and people who claim no religious identity).

And 66 percent of Catholics say gay or lesbian couples are acceptable for rearing children. That includes 43 percent who say this arrangement is as good as any other family structure.

Catholics Say Traditional Families Ideal; Other Family Arrangements Acceptable. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has spent a decade battling the legalization of same-sex marriage, Catholics are split: 46 percent say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples -- and exactly the same percentage say no.

Catholic doctrine teaches that artificial contraception interferes with true union in a marriage and that couples should always be open to God’s gift of children. However, in the survey:

  • 76 percent of Catholics -- including 65 percent of Catholics who attend Mass once a week -- say their church should allow them to use artificial birth control.
  • 41 percent say being open to having children is essential to what it means to them personally to be Catholic. Another 41 percent say it’s important but not essential.
  • 33 percent call opposing abortion “essential” and 34 percent call it important.

No matter how far Catholics stray from the doctrinal path in their attitudes or actions, the pull of the family is strong.

The Pew survey found 56 percent of Catholics -- and 46 percent of ex-Catholics, too -- say they sometimes participate in Catholic activities such as Mass or attending a family baptism or holiday observance, just because they are important to family or close friends, even if they don’t personally believe in them.

Bringing the whole clan to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia might just be one of those occasions.



  1. The Christian ideal should be the norm for marriage; all other “arrangements” that are not in line with the Plan of God, are typically normalized at some point. Most people ultimately see that they cannot continue in irregular arrangements permanently. God continues to thump our consciences until we respond. Of course I am speaking of traditional marriage, and not gay marriage.

  2. I was left wondering whether those in the survey were thinking these things were “okay for us Catholics” or were they thinking “those alternatives are okay for non-catholics – we shouldn’t persecute them or try to have the government ban the practices – but a good Catholic would still avoid doing those things.”

  3. These results are at best the tip of the iceberg. It is well-known that the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. frequently grants “Annuments” – dissolution of a marriage per church standards – but not so often in other countries. This is because they know that if they did not do this their pews would be empty. The annuments permit those Catholics who had such divorces to be remarried in the Catholic Church.

  4. There is considerable disagreement as to what constitutes “The Christian Ideal,” and this makes the rest of your assertions invalid.

  5. Well, when you consider how so many are divorced and remarried, they may tell themselves such things but in their hearts unless they are completely unself-aware, they know such is hypocritical.

  6. The Pew Study shows in 2007 24% of Americans identified as Catholic. Now its 20%. Of those 20%, 16% say the rarely or never attend Mass = 17% of Americans are practicing Catholics. (41% of Catholic adults under age 30 say they could see themselves leaving the Church.) 6% identify as “cultural” Catholics, raised as Catholic or had Catholic parent, and 9% are ex-Catholic, no longer identify as Catholic = 15% of Americans are former Catholics.

  7. The Catholic Church effectively gives tacit approval to divorce with what has become the charade of annulment. In their 2002 book, “Catholic Divorce: The Deception of Annulments”, Joseph Martos and Pierre Hegy state:

    “Because the grounds for annulment have become so broad that practically anyone who applies for one can obtain it, many observers now regard annulments as ‘virtual divorces.’ After all, the same grounds for divorce in a civil court have ‘become grounds for the nonexistence of marriage in an ecclesiastical court.’ (Page 23) To add to the deceit, many couples who receive annulments do so believing that their marriage was, in fact, sacramentally valid – that the marital bond did exist but that, over time, it began to break down. These couples, understandably, choose not to disclose this part of the story to marriage tribunals so that they can qualify for an annulment.”


  8. While your statements may seem reasonable to you, they are assertions for which there is no evidence. Polling is an inexact science, but one thing we know for sure is that conclusions not directly addressed on the questionnaires are often proven wrong.

    Remeber, there is a difference between a red spool of thread and a spool of red thread.

  9. The Church can never be taught by society, it exists to teach society on all matters of faith and morals. Catholics misbehaving or not attending Mass is due to their own self absorption, and no cause for truths to be changed.
    Only the manner in teaching the same truths can change, not the content. It teaches as God would.

  10. No they are very valid. I am Catholic, and know quite well what is required by the Church. Any Catholic who does not follow the most basic Catholic teachings, have left the heart of the Church, and will hear about it at their particular Judgment.

  11. The Catholic Annulment process is simple: if there was something defective in the relationship or the mindset of either party at the time of the taking of the vows, then an annulment could be granted. That could include a psychological impairment, one party or another not seeing this marriage as for life, etc. Yes it is broad, but so are people so vastly different. But, if all was in order during the taking of the vows, and the couple were truly appealing to God to join them for life, then an annulment will not be granted.

  12. So, you are apparently saying that if teachings grounded in reason/evidence/logic differ from teachings grounded in myths/fallacies/superstition, then the latter must always overrule the former.

  13. If you perceive the Catholic Faith is grounded in myths, fantasies, and superstition, then you have a very prejudiced and narrow education. That’s your shame.

  14. If you perceive the Catholic Faith is grounded in myths, fantasies, and superstition, then you have a very prejudiced and narrow education. That’s your shame. Keep studying.

  15. I don’t think even most Catholics believe that. So what about us Protestants, then?

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