Many Catholics say the church should change its stance on key issues. In particular, they would like to see it expand eligibility for the priesthood, relax restrictions on the reception of Holy Communion and drop its ban on artificial birth control for family-planning purposes.
There is less consensus on whether these changes will happen within the next 35 years. While most Catholics say they think the church will change its teaching on the use of contraceptives by 2050, fewer than half believe that the Catholic Church will allow priests to marry or women to be ordained.
This chapter looks at Catholics’ support for changes in church teachings and policies, and their expectations for change.
Catholic Desires for Change
Among Catholics, the strongest aspiration for change in church teaching involves the ban on the use of contraceptives. About three-quarters (76%) of Catholics say the church should allow its adherents to use birth control.
Roughly six-in-ten Catholics say the church should allow priests to get married (62%) and women to become priests (59%). Similar shares say reception of Holy Communion should be approved for divorced Catholics who remarry without having their first marriage annulled (62%) and for Catholics living with a romantic partner without being married (61%).
When it comes to recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, Catholics are more divided. Currently, 46% of U.S. Catholics say the Catholic Church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.
Cultural Catholics are more supportive of changes to Catholic Church teachings than are Catholics by religion. For example, 84% of cultural Catholics say the church should modify its ban on the use of artificial birth control compared with 76% of Catholics.
Ex-Catholics are more supportive than Catholics of allowing priests to get married (79% vs. 62%) and women to become priests (66% vs. 59%), but they are no more likely than Catholics to support other changes to church teachings and policies.
There is less support for these changes among Catholics who attend Mass regularly than among those who do not. But even among Catholics who say they attend Mass on a weekly basis, there is considerable support for certain changes. For instance, about two-thirds of Catholics (65%) who attend Mass weekly say the church should relax its restrictions on contraception. And more than four-in-ten say the Catholic Church should allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion (50%), permit priests to get married (48%) and allow cohabiting Catholics to receive Communion (46%). However, when it comes to recognition of gay and lesbian marriages, more Catholics who attend Mass weekly say this change should not occur than say it should (54% vs. 37%).
White Catholics are more likely than Hispanic Catholics to support various changes in church teachings and policies, especially with regard to who should be able to receive Holy Communion. Roughly three-quarters of white Catholics (74%) say divorced Catholics who remarry without getting an annulment should be permitted to receive Communion, compared with 44% of Hispanic Catholics. And about seven-in-ten white Catholics (69%) say unwed Catholics living with a romantic partner should be able to receive Communion. By comparison, 49% of Hispanic Catholics hold this opinion.
The study also shows that Catholics ages 65 and older tend to be less supportive of changes in church teachings than are younger Catholics. And Catholics under 50 express more support for having the Catholic Church recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples than do older adults.
Catholics with the highest levels of educational attainment are more supportive of changes in church teachings and policies than are those with less education. There is little difference between men and women in support for these changes, even when it comes to ordaining women as priests.
Support for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, even without an annulment, is not significantly higher among Catholics who have been divorced themselves (67%) than among Catholics as a whole (62%). However, Catholics who have lived with a romantic partner outside of marriage are somewhat more likely than Catholics overall to think cohabiting couples should be permitted to receive Communion (70% vs. 61%).
Catholics’ Expectations for Change in the Church
Nearly six-in-ten Catholics believe the church’s ban on artificial contraception will definitely or probably be overturned by 2050. Half or more of U.S. Catholics also say that, by 2050, the Catholic Church will expand eligibility for receiving Holy Communion to include unwed Catholics living with a romantic partner (56%) and divorced Catholics who have remarried without getting an annulment (54%).
But Catholics are less convinced that the church will allow priests to marry (46%), ordain women as priests (41%) or recognize same-sex marriages (36%).
Overall, cultural Catholics are more likely than Catholics by religion to expect big changes from the church.
Compared with weekly Mass-attending Catholics, those who attend Mass more sporadically are somewhat more likely to expect changes in church teaching. The differences in expectations, however, are much smaller than the differences in desire for these changes.
Beyond these differences between Catholics who attend Mass regularly and other Catholics, there are relatively few clear, consistent differences among Catholic subgroups in their expectations for change. For example, Catholics ages 65 and older are more likely than younger Catholics to expect the church to allow priests to marry, but no more likely to expect other changes. And men are more likely than women to expect to see the church ordain women, but otherwise the differences between Catholic men and women are modest.