By Catherine Woodiwiss 9-02-2015

Later this month, Pope Francis will say Mass in Philadelphia, Pa., as part of the city's World Meeting of Families.

Many Catholics who come to hear the pope, however, may not mirror the church’s teaching on family.

new survey released from Pew Research Center, conducted in the lead-up to the pontiff’s visit, examined U.S. Catholics’ attitudes on family, marriage, and sexuality, as well as on issues close to the pope’s heart — concern for the poor, care for the environment, and forgiveness of sins. The results found Catholics “remarkably accepting of a wide variety of non-traditional families.”

This is not to say longstanding church teaching on marriage has changed — the church very much still upholds lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriage with children as the divine plan for coupleship, and nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say this is the ideal arrangement. But large majorities now say other familial arrangements are acceptable, too.  

According to the survey of U.S. Catholics, 85 percent say it is acceptable for a man and woman to live together as a couple outside of marriage, and 84 percent say it is acceptable for raise children in this arrangement. Two-thirds say it is acceptable for same-sex couples to raise children. And 70 percent say married couples who choose to not have children are choosing a lifestyle that is just as good as any other.

The survey findings could indicate a growing ethos of, “Who am I to judge?,” said Gregory Smith, a primary researcher for the survey, echoing Pope Francis’ famous (if widely misconstrued) words on gay Catholics.

“But that’s not all that’s going on. Many Catholics are actively endorsing these alternative arrangements.”

The survey’s researchers suggests these shifting attitudes towards family life reflect the modern experiences of Catholics.

According to the survey:

  • One-in-four U.S. Catholics have gone through a divorce
  • One-in-ten have divorced and remarried
  • One-in-ten are living with a romantic partner
  • More than four-in-ten have done so at some point in their lives.

Yet for all their changing attitudes on family, practicing Catholics maintain dedication to the church: seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics “cannot ever imagine” leaving the church, “no matter what.” And despite disagreeing with church teaching on the use of birth control (76-84 percent) or the church recognizing same-sex marriages (46-62 percent), more than half say that receiving the sacraments and devotion to Mary are “essential” to what it personally means to be Catholic.

And while the current pope’s much-lauded “Francis effect” has not actually translated to a rise in numbers in the U.S. church (and is not likely to — nearly 90 percent of ex-Catholics, despite holding the pope in high esteem, say they “cannot imagine” themselves “ever returning to the church”), the survey nevertheless shows a measurable rise in devotion among practicing Catholics. By a 3-to-1 margin, respondents report being more excited about their faith than not in the last year, and those reporting excitement also say they are praying more and reading more Scripture.

“You can’t say there’s definitive evidence of a ‘Francis effect,’ but we can say there’s excitement, a general feeling,” said Smith.

That feeling is on display throughout the country as the United States prepares to host the pontiff in late September. The excitement is credited in part to the popularity of Pope Francis in the media, but reflective also of the large proportion of Americans (45 percent) who are closely connected to Catholicism — including one-fifth of Americans who claim the faith as their current religion, one-tenth who were raised in the faith and have since left the church, and one-tenth who maintain a cultural and/or close personal connection to Catholicism, despite not affiliating.

“The family which experiences the joy of faith communicates it naturally,” said Pope Francis in a Holy Mass for Family Day in 2013.

“That family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world; it is the leaven of society.”

However U.S. Catholics’ views on family and marriage continue to shift, the familial bonds between pope and laity appear as strong than ever.  

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Deputy Web Editor at Sojourners.

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