Papal and Public Opinion on Gay Marriage

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (far left) presents wooden gavels to nine Texas Catholic bishops at the Texas Senate on April 6, 2011
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (far left) presents wooden gavels to nine Texas Catholic bishops at the Texas Senate on April 6, 2011

Whether or not the Catholic Church remains strongly opposed to gay marriage under Pope Francis I, one thing is for sure: There is a clear and widening gap between papal and public opinion on same-sex relationships in the U.S., and Texas is no exception.

When Argentina legalized gay marriage back in 2010, then-Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio — who will be installed as the head of the Catholic Church on Tuesday — was at the forefront of the opposition, stating that the law was “a scheme to destroy God’s plan.” But Catholic attitudes in Texas and across the U.S. are far more diverse.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Catholic support for same-sex marriage has been steadily increasing over the past four years from 42 percent in 2009 up to 54 percent in 2012 (yes, a majority of U.S. Catholics now favor gay marriage).

The story is much the same here in Texas, where approximately 24 percent of the state’s 26 million residents identify as Catholic. We’ve asked respondents whether they favor granting same-sex couples the right to marry or the right to civil unions in seven of the last 14 University of Texas/Texas Tribune surveys since March 2009. Looking at our most recent survey in February 2013, and comparing it with attitudes from one year ago, it is clear that Texas Catholics are moving in the same direction as the rest of the country.

In February 2012, 23 percent of Texas Catholics expressed support for gay marriage, while another 40 percent expressed support for civil unions (n=131, margin of error +/- 8.56 percent). In February 2013, 33 percent supported gay marriage, 42 percent supported civil unions and the percentage of Catholics who expressed outright opposition to both dropped from 28 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2013 (n=185, margin of error +/- 7.2 percent).

Two points of caution should be taken when interpreting these results. First, it is obvious that the margin of error is high; nonetheless, the trajectory of opinion among Catholics in Texas (backed up by the national data) is one of increasing acceptance toward same-sex couples.

Second, when looking at opinions among religious groups, a key divergence is usually found within those groups across different rates of church attendance. (This is similar to the way combined topline results on political issues frequently conceal sharp underlying partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats.) Though I am unable to divide these Catholics into regular and irregular attenders because the number of respondents would be made too small, I can say with a high degree of certainty that Catholic support for gay marriage will be much lower among those who regularly go to church compared to those who identify as Catholic but don’t usually attend. For example, in the February 2013 poll, opposition to gay marriage and civil unions is highest amongst those who go to church more than once a week (57 percent), but declines as you move to those who attend once a week (40 percent), a few times a month (31 percent), once or twice a year (19 percent) and never (11 percent). 

Texas may be an “above average” state when it comes to religiosity (a combination of importance and attendance), but religiosity is on the decline everywhere, including within the Catholic Church, whether in Europe, the U.S. or Texas. 

 

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