Pope Francis is full of surprises. This month he launched a survey of Catholic opinion in order to inform a special synod on the family scheduled to meet in Rome next October. Not surprisingly, it’s caught many national conferences of bishops on the hop. Under John Paul II and Benedict XIV they’d got used to a Vatican which looked inwards rather that outwards for authority. A favourite text was Lumen Gentium’s passage which insists that the magisterium of the Pontiff requires “religious submission of mind and will.” A survey of ordinary Catholics sits oddly with this stance. What can it mean?
Catholic opinion is divided on the answer. Conservatives say the survey’s designed to do no more than expose how the church’s irreformable teaching on family and sex needs to be strengthened. It will aid in the re-confessionalisation of the faithful, helping gather strayed sheep back to the fold. Reformists say the opposite. They welcome the initiative as a sign that Francis really cares about what ordinary Catholics think, and that Vatican II’s claim that the Church is “the whole people of God” is at last being made good.
A closer look at the questionnaire supports the conservative view over the reformist one, for it’s not a survey in any sense that a social scientist would recognize. The 38 questions are larded with theological jargon, and will leave many of the faithful scratching their heads and Googling the Catholic Encyclopedia. Take question 1a, for example:
Describe how the Catholic Church's teachings on the value of the family contained in the Bible, Guadium et spes, Familiaris consortio and other documents of the post-consiliar Magisterium is understood by people today?
What’s more, most of the questions call for open-ended, hydra-headed responses. It’s a mystery how they could be analysed effectively, and a certainty that they will not yield a reliable, transparent measurement of where the weight of catholic opinion lies in any country.
As luck or providence would have it, however, I’ve just conducted a scientific survey of Catholic opinion on many of the same issues the Vatican survey addresses. My sample is only of British Catholics, but with responses from 1,062 Catholics in the main survey, plus two supporting surveys of the British population with 350 and 260 Catholics respectively, I can offer the first reliable profile of the Catholic population of England, Scotland and Wales. And in showing just how far adrift they are from where the church thinks they should be, we can see what is surely the single most important issue prompting the Vatican survey: the Church’s growing awareness that there’s a serious gulf between official teaching and what Catholics really think and do.
What the Church may not have realised, however, is just how yawning the gap has become. Current teaching says that sex should only take place within life-long heterosexual marriage, with the conjoined purpose of union and procreation. We’ve known for a long time that many Catholics defy a great deal of this—not least with regard to pre-marital sex, divorce and remarriage, and the use of artificial contraception. My survey reinforces this knowledge. On contraception, for example, it finds that only 9% of self-identified Catholics would even feel guilty about using it, and that rises to only 12% amongst churchgoers.
Perhaps more surprising is how far Catholics have drifted from the Church’s model of a Godly family. Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children, almost 90% agreeing that an unmarried couple with children is a family, and two-thirds saying that a same-sex couple with children is also a family. As for same-sex marriage—something which is not even on the distant horizon of the Church’s official agenda—British Catholics as a whole are now in favour of allowing it by a margin of 3%. In addition, only a third approve of the Church’s policies on women, and only 19% of British Catholics support a ban on abortion.
Even more worrying for Church leaders is the fact that the gap between Catholic opinion and official teaching widens with every generation. My survey finds, for example, that over half of British Catholics under 50 now say “same-sex marriage is right” compared with 16% of over-60s, and support for a ban on abortion has fallen to 14% amongst under-40s compared from a quarter amongst over-60s.
The result is a Britain in which “faithful Catholics” according to official teaching are now a rare and endangered species. If we measure them by the criteria of weekly churchgoing, certain belief in God, taking authority from religious sources, and opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, only 5% of Catholics fit the mould, and only 2% of those under 30.
Zero percent of British Catholics now look to religious leaders for guidance as they make decisions and live their lives. The majority say they rely on their own reason, judgement, intuition or feelings. Catholics over 60 are somewhat more likely to take authority from external religious sources, but the figures are low for all ages. Just 8% of Catholics say they look to “tradition and teachings of the Church” 7% to God, 2% to the Bible, 2% to the religious group to which a person belongs, and 0% to local or national religious leaders.
Likewise, only 36% of Catholics say that the Church is a positive force in society, and when those who take the opposite view are asked their reasons, the most popular are: that it discriminates against women and gay people; the child abuse scandals; that it’s hypocritical; and that it’s too morally conservative
So the Catholic Church in a country like Britain faces a crisis of disaffection, both amongst those who still identify as Catholic (a fairly stable proportion), and even amongst those who still go to church (a proportion in rapid decline). The Vatican survey suggests that Francis and other senior figures have at least an inkling of this problem, but how will they respond if their survey throws up results like mine?
The line taken by the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nicholls last week is one possibility. He maintained that the fact that people ignore the Church’s moral teachings just indicates that we are all sinners, but that Catholic teaching remains a gold standard to which people should aspire. The problem with this line is that most Catholics don’t think the teaching is toohard, they think it’s wrong. They’re not convinced the church should be sticking its nose into the bedroom at all, they’ve embraced many aspects of the sexual revolution, and they endorse the moral revolution which has advanced the equal treatment of women, children, and LGBT people. Some priests and even bishops have made this moral transition too. But no-one is admitting it.
A Catholic friend described the current situation to me as “a big con.” The Church knows no one is listening to its sexual strictures, and many clergy don’t even believe they should. But everyone goes on pretending—at least in the West.
The problem is that a series of fatal decisions have made it almost impossible for the Church to change direction—even if it’s heading towards a cliff. The option to swerve was last opened up in the late 1960s, when a commission was convened to examine the Church’s opposition to contraception—an opposition formulated by Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930), which had in turn been influenced by the fact that the Church of England had made a decision to allow contraception earlier the same year.
In that commission a minority group, which included the man who would become Pope John Paul II, argued successfully against the majority who argued for a relaxation of the ban. Part of their reasoning was that a change of mind would undermine authority, and make it look as if the Spirit had been blowing through the Anglican rather than the Catholic Church. Paul VI agreed, and the result was a reaffirmation of the Church’s sexual teaching in Humanae Vitae (1968). The door to change slammed shut. Since then the Church has insisted that its sexual teachings are “irreformable.”
But surveys are dangerous things. They raise expectations. And they play to people’s growing sense that they have voice and choice—even in a traditional Church. If it turns out that those voices are ignored or, worse, corralled more firmly into the existing sheepfold of moral teaching, the tension may reach a breaking point. Perhaps Francis is clever enough to have anticipated that, and perhaps he has subtle plans to turn such a crisis to good ends. Perhaps not.