What do American Catholics have to say about family life? One survey offers some ideas

When the news broke a few months ago that Pope Francis was looking for input from the pews on issues relating to marriage and family life, a number of groups were quick to lend a hand by distributing surveys to lay Catholics. Among them was the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project, a group of pastoral consultants who provide resources to parishes and dioceses across the country.

The PEP put out a short 10-question survey through their monthly e-mail newsletter, which goes to more than 3,000 readers. One would assume those who receive a newsletter about parish life are a good sample of church leaders and people actively engaged in parish ministry. The demographics of respondents showed no surprises there: 88 percent attend Mass at least once a week, 69 percent are age 55 or older, and 62 percent are women.

The survey asked respondents to give their take on six key questions related to the issues of sex, marriage, and family life, scoring their position as either favorable, very favorable, unvfavorable, very unfavorable, or "mixed feelings." On the issue of using artificial birth control, 65.5 percent said they have either a favorable or very favorable view–clearly showing a disconnect with the church's official position. Similarly, 61 percent were either favorable or very favorable toward allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, which for now the church also forbids.

When it comes to homosexuality, the survey showed more division among Catholics. A slim majority–52 percent–favor state-sanctioned civil marriages for gay and lesbian couples, but 22.6 percent say they have a very unfavorable view of same-sex civil marriage. There was even less agreement about whether such couples should have sexual relationships: 28.6 percent said they have mixed feelings about this, with the rest of responses nearly evenly divided between the favorable and unfavorable side. (For a full breakdown of all the results compiled by the PEP in PDF format, click here.)

Clearly these results do not represent a definitive study of Catholic opinion, but they do offer an interesting snapshot of the diversity of views among people involved in parish life in the United States. If anything, they show that Catholics recognize the complexity of these issues (the number who answered that they had "mixed feelings" on each topic ranged from at least 15 to as much as 43 percent) and that there is much uncertainty and debate among the faithful on these questions. For these Catholics, applying their church's teaching to real world situations around them isn't always easy. And if the kind of Catholics who are in touch with their faith to the degree that they'd read a parish newsletter and respond to its survey are struggling with these kinds of issues, imagine how the rest of the people in the pews are doing.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of responses eventually end up in the hands of the Vatican and, more importantly, how Pope Francis will respond to the concerns of his global flock.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.