Many Catholics in Latin America – including a majority in Brazil – support allowing priests to marry
Pope Francis leads the opening mass at the Amazon synod at the Vatican. (Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Catholic bishops from Latin America this year have revived a debate about who should serve in the church by calling on the Vatican to allow married men to become priests in the Amazon region and to consider allowing women to serve as deacons.

The proposals, announced at the Vatican in October following the synod of bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, are a reaction to a severe clergy shortage as Christians in the region increasingly shift toward evangelical Protestantism. Pope Francis said at the time he plans to respond in writing by the end of the year.

Pew Research Center polled Catholics about their views on married priests in a 2014 survey of Latin America, though the question focused on whether already-ordained priests should be allowed to marry. The survey found that support varied across the region. (While the data was collected in 2013 and 2014, it is unlikely that public support has diminished.)

In Brazil – home to the world’s largest Catholic population and most of the Amazon rainforest – a majority of Catholics (56%) were in favor of allowing priests to marry. In other countries represented at the Amazon synod, support ranged from 53% in Venezuela and 48% in Colombia to 29% in Ecuador and 28% in Peru.

Across all 19 of the Latin American countries and territories surveyed, there are 10 places where roughly half or more of Catholics said priests should be allowed to marry, including Uruguay (66%), Chile (65%), Argentina (58%) and Panama (50%).

On the question of whether the Catholic Church should allow women to be ordained as priests, support in the Amazon nations also was highest in Brazil. Almost eight-in-ten Catholics in Brazil backed women as priests (78%), followed by Bolivia (51%), Colombia (43%), Peru and Venezuela (both 42%), and Ecuador (34%). Across the 19 Latin American countries and territories surveyed, roughly half or more of Catholics in eight places said women should be allowed to serve as priests.

It’s important to note that while the Vatican’s recent discussions are focused on ordaining women as deacons, our surveys have explored Catholics’ opinions about ordaining women as priests. Pope Francis said earlier this year that a Vatican commission created in 2016 to study whether women had been ordained as deacons in early Christianity had not reached a consensus, but that the topic would continue to be studied.

Views about expanding the priesthood were tied to education, with higher levels of support found among people with at least a secondary school education. In Bolivia, for example, 59% of Catholics with a secondary education or more were in favor of female priests, compared with 42% among Catholics with less education.

Differences in approval for female priests also emerged across genders, with men expressing greater support than women for female ordination. For example, 48% of Catholic men in Venezuela said there should be women priests, but only 37% of Catholic women took this stance.

Support for allowing priests to marry, meanwhile, tended to be lower among the highly religious. In Costa Rica, for example, nearly half of Catholics who rate religion as “very important” in their lives backed priest marriage (48%), compared with at least two-thirds among Costa Ricans who said that religion is at most “somewhat important” (69%).

In the United States, where Pew Research Center asked in 2015 about allowing priests to marry and ordaining women, support was much higher than it was in Latin America. Roughly six-in-ten U.S. Catholics said that the church should allow priests to marry (62%) and should ordain women (59%), compared with a smaller share of Latin American Catholics who said this (medians of 48% and 42%, respectively).

Our survey of Central and Eastern Europe in 2015 and 2016, meanwhile, found more support for married priests than for ordaining women. A median of 63% of Catholics in nine countries in the region said priests should be allowed to marry, while 41% said that women should be allowed to be ordained. Support for married priests was highest among Catholics in Latvia (73%), and lowest among Catholics in Bosnia (31%). Backing for female priests was highest in the Czech Republic (55%) and lowest in Ukraine (10%).

In Central and Eastern Europe, some Eastern Rite Catholic churches already allow married men to be ordained as priests, though not as bishops.

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Jonathan Evans  is a research associate focusing on religion research at Pew Research Center.