October 3, 2014

Vatican synod on family highlights discord between church teachings and U.S. Catholics’ views

This weekend in Rome, the Catholic Church is set to begin a wide-ranging synod (assembly) on family issues. The two-week meeting comes at a time when most American Catholics say they disagree with their church’s teachings on family-related issues such as birth control and divorce. It also takes place in the wake of recent actions by Pope Francis that hint at the possibility of changing attitudes within the Vatican on questions related to marriage and family.

Last month, Francis fueled speculation about potential changes to church policies toward marriage by performing 20 weddings, including for couples that had children out of wedlock, had lived together before marriage or had been previously married.

These weddings surprised many, because the church does not condone premarital sex or cohabitation, and also views marriage as a “permanent union.” Indeed, it does not recognize civil divorce, which it calls “immoral” and “a grave offense against the natural law.”

Catholics' Views on Divorce, Birth ControlA Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2012 found that relatively few U.S. Catholics (19%) said that getting a divorce is morally wrong. About a third (32%) said divorce is morally acceptable, while 45% said it is not a moral issue. There were not significant differences on this question between Catholics who attend church weekly and those who attend less often.

The church’s teaching on marriage is more nuanced than simply prohibiting divorce. It does, for example, allow some couples the option to annul their marriages.

Annulments do not sever a marriage but instead declare that the marriage was never valid because it “fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church holds that divorced and remarried Catholics must have obtained an annulment before they can receive sacraments such as communion or confession. Francis recently appointed a panel aimed at streamlining the annulment process, although it has drawn opposition from some cardinals.

Another area in which American Catholics see things differently than the church is its teaching that “artificial contraception is contrary to God’s will for marriage because it separates the act of conception from sexual union.” As an alternative, the church promotes “natural family planning” (based on tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle) as an option for married couples.

Most American Catholics do not object to the use of artificial birth control on moral grounds. In a survey we conducted earlier this year, 77% of U.S. Catholics said the church should sanction the use of birth control – and 56% think this change will definitely or probably happen by 2050.

Topics: Religion and Society, Catholics and Catholicism, Religious Leaders

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Edd Doerr3 years ago

    As usual, the Vatican, the Old Boys Club on the Tiber, is far behind where most Catholics are. Pope Francis could change all that with the stroke of a pen, by rescinding the 1968 ban on contraception, which Paul VI issued against the sound advice of the vast majority of his own advisers. — Edd Doerr (arlinc.org)

  2. James3 years ago

    77% of U.S. Catholics said the church should sanction the use of birth control – and 56% think this change will definitely or probably happen by 2050.

    Given the pace of technological and scientific advancement, which is very rapid, compared to the pace of change in the Church, which is measured in centuries, we’re far more likely to see menstrual tracking (natural family planning) perfected before the Church will even consider taking up the issue of birth control again.

  3. Earl3 years ago

    The Church was not founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ to abolish the laws of His Father by conforming to the world but rather to be a witness to it, i.e., in the world but not of it.

    “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing any more but to be cast out, and to be trodden on by men.” (Mt. 5:13)

    As for poor sinners like myself: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mk. 8:36) Lord, help me take up my cross and follow You.

    1. jkldes2 years ago

      and who is the hierarchy to tell ANY couple what they can/can’t do in the sanctity of their own bedroom?
      Sorry, but no old man in a skirt has that authority and NEVER will.

  4. Thomas R3 years ago

    Most of the world’s Catholics do not live in the US so this is not necessarily that important. Although Univision’s poll didn’t indicate widespread disagreement between the laity and church teaching on contraception and divorce. (Their abortion question I think was worded in a way where the middle ground response could be taken as meaning everything from “only in case of the mother’s life” to “allowed for many reasons, but not quite every reason” so I consider that part to be problematic.) American Catholics came out slightly unusual in that frequent church-goers and infrequent ones were more similar in views than in other nations. I think in many lands people who don’t agree with the Catholic religion lapse, we might be slightly unusual in thinking that the Catholic Church should change to fit us a notion maybe related to the “Americanist heresy.”

    Although even then frequent church-goers outside Africa were listed as accepting contraception. Most outside Africa also accepted remarriage after divorce, but I think Filipinos were a bit more negative on the subject.

    All this said “Sensus fidelium” is not like a simple vote or populism. (For that matter even if Catholic beliefs were like the US legislature you often need more than a simple majority vote and definitely do to add or repeal Amendments to the US. Contraception was the only thing in the Univision Poll where over 60% clearly disagreed with church teaching.) It can not “undo” views on divorce which are based in our faith’s understanding of the Gospels.

  5. john3 years ago

    Keep in mind we are all sinners, and are still subject to forgiveness, once forgiven by God we are clean until the next error of our ways, however that forgiveness each time only comes with true plea for forgiveness. Otherwise all bets are off. This however should not reflect poorly on the Church, but only on the sinner.