Americans and the Catholic Church on Gay Priests

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

The recent sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought homosexuality into the forefront of religious discussion. Despite the lack of direct evidence supporting such a link, questions have arisen about the possibility of a connection between homosexuality among Catholic priests and the numerous accusations of sexual abuse.

Clearly, though reports suggest that gay priests are hardly uncommon, the Catholic Church's official view of homosexuality is highly negative. In 1961, the Vatican issued a directive, which has not been revised, calling homosexuality a "perverse inclination." Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, said in a Catholic News Service interview last year that homosexual inclination is a strong temptation to actions that "are always in themselves evil." And Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, drew fire from gay activists when he said in April that priestly abuse of children is "not truly a pedophilia-type problem, but a homosexual-type problem."

The disparity between the church's official stance on homosexuality and the reality among clergy members raises the question: how do rank-and-file Catholics feel about gay men serving as priests? How about the American public as a whole? Over the past 10 years, Gallup has been asking the public whether it feels homosexuals should be hired as members of the clergy, as well as several other occupations.

The Catholic Perspective

Catholic Americans tend to be more tolerant than Protestant Americans on this issue. In the May 2001 poll*, 57% of Catholics said that homosexuals should be hired as members of the clergy, compared to 44% of Protestants and 54% of the total population. From another perspective, however, tolerance for gays in the priesthood remains low among Catholics: they are significantly more likely to say they favor allowing homosexuals to serve in any of the other professions asked about, with the exception of elementary school teachers.

All Americans

With regard to the American public as a whole, a majority says they don't mind the presence of homosexuals in the clergy. According to a May 2001 Gallup poll, 54% of Americans say that being homosexual shouldn't preclude pastoral service. Acceptance of homosexuals in the clergy has increased from 43% in 1992.

However, this group is also less likely to approve of homosexuals in the clergy than they are to approve of homosexuals in almost any other occupation. In the 2001 poll, 54% of the public said that homosexuals should be hired as clergy, compared to 91% who approve of homosexuals as salespeople, 78% as doctors, 75% as members of the president's Cabinet, 72% as soldiers, 63% as high school teachers, and 56% as elementary school teachers.

Key Points

Although the public is divided on this issue, a slim majority favors homosexuals in the clergy, and the number of people who support homosexuals in the clergy has increased significantly over the past decade. Moreover, when last questioned on this issue, Catholics were more strongly in favor of allowing homosexuals in the clergy than were Protestants.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 10-14, 2001. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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