National Catholic Register


Polls: Do the Numbers Lie?

Survey Claims More American Catholics Okay Same-Sex 'Marriage'

BY Joan Frawley Desmond

Register Senior Editor

April 24-May 7, 2011 Issue | Posted 4/15/11 at 6:33 PM


WASHINGTON — Recent headlines trumpeting Catholic support for “gay rights” suggest that the faithful reject Church teaching. But critics allege that the latest opinion research is part of a political strategy to promote same-sex “marriage” and should not be trusted.

When the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religious Research Institute published polling data on what they termed “Catholic attitudes on gay and lesbian issues,” the media jumped on the striking numbers. The institute’s report, subtitled “A Comprehensive Portrait From Recent Research,” was released in late March and drew immediate media attention.

PRRI’s website highlights the key findings of its research on Catholic opinion: “Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics favor either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or allowing them to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% of Catholics say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.”

The report summary states: “A majority of Catholics (56%) believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin. Among the general population, less than half (46%) believe it is not a sin.”

Amid ongoing legislative and constitutional challenges to state and federal laws banning same-sex “marriage,” the headlines suggest that Catholics are willing to redefine a fundamental social institution.

But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, contends that some of the questions used to generate the data, as well as the media response to the research, have created an inaccurate portrait of Catholic opinion in America.

Brown and other supporters of traditional marriage fear that the data could discourage resistance to same-sex “marriage.”

Meanwhile, some Catholic experts defend the polling methodology and contend that the numbers don’t lie (see “What Does America Really Think About Homosexuality?” at Numerous surveys reveal that even active Catholics are more likely than their Protestant counterparts to accept key elements of the homosexual-rights agenda. They say the Church must grapple with the facts.

The centerpiece of Brown’s argument is the discrepancy between polls that signal growing support for “marriage equality” and the repeated rejection of same-sex “marriage” by actual voters. The latest research on Catholic opinion, Brown contends, is based on the same kind of flawed methodology that has misrepresented the actual views of respondents, whatever their religious beliefs.

“What is being attempted is to use skewed information to convince people that it’s not worth fighting on the issue. But if ‘gay marriage’ supporters really believe that voters support their position, then let’s allow free and fair referendums on this issue,” said Brown. “The truth is: As we’ve seen in Rhode Island and Maryland, supporters of same-sex ‘marriage’ don’t want a public referendum.”

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage — and the Church leader who jump-started Proposition 8, the referendum that banned same-sex “marriage” in the state — underscored the limitations of opinion research.

“The track record shows that polling data on this issue is not all that reliable. In state after state where this has been voted on by the people, the activists have cited polling data in their favor — but they have not won an election once,” said Bishop Cordileone.

He voiced concerns about how “questions on the survey are phrased” and noted that “many people are hesitant to tell a pollster something that would make them look intolerant or bigoted,” according to the edicts of political correctness. “But then when they get into the privacy of the voting booth, they vote their conscience.”

Critics say that the specific formulation of research questions can alter polling results: Marriage may be described as a “civil” rather than a religious institution, confusing respondents about the issue in question. Meanwhile, respondents who self-identify as “Catholic” may rarely attend Mass. Among the several surveys included in the PRRI report, some polls did not give respondents the option of choosing between civil unions and marriage, skewing their response in favor of the latter option.

Divide and Conquer

Asked to comment on the concerns raised about PRRI’s methodology and objectivity, Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America expressed surprise about some findings — such as rising support for same-sex “marriage” among Hispanic Catholics in California.

But Schneck, a professor of politics, didn’t question the integrity of the research process. He noted that the report provided the questions used in the surveys and separated “Catholics” into three groups, including but not limited to individuals who attended Mass at least weekly.

Thomas Peters, who blogs at, has challenged the credibility of the PRRI research effort, contending that the polling numbers were part of a larger, well-funded effort to divide and conquer Catholic resistance to same-sex “marriage.”

“This much-circulated poll was paid for by [the] Arcus Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund,” stated Peters, who noted that both organizations are committed to the homosexual-rights agenda.

The Hass Fund website confirms that, in 2009, PRRI received $107,500 for a California-based survey that “provides polling to help gay-rights groups figure out how to better push their agenda among various faith communities.”

The PRRI report states that it received funding from the Arcus Foundation, whose website profiles its “Religion and Values” program designed to “advance the moral and civil equality of LGBT people at local, state, national and international levels.”

Asked to respond to charges that the Arcus Foundation’s grants raised questions about the objectivity of the research process, PRRI CEO Robert Jones — one of the report’s two authors — said that the surveys adhered to high standards of research. He asserted that the Arcus Foundation had no influence on the study’s design or its outcome.

Other Catholic scholars suggest that the numbers should be a wake-up call for Church leaders. Father Paul Sullins, a professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America, said his own research confirms that practicing Catholics are less likely to support same-sex “marriage” than cradle Catholics who no longer attend Mass.

However, Father Sullins said that the PRRI numbers weren’t surprising: “Generally speaking, Catholics across the board are going to be more supportive of ‘gay marriage’ and tolerant of this group than Protestants,” he said in a telephone interview. “The strongest opposition comes from black churches, which reject the normalization of homosexuality.”

In a 2010 article in the Catholic Social Science Review, Father Sullins outlined several reasons for Catholics’ growing tolerance of homosexual relationships, including same-sex “marriage.” He concluded that the U.S. bishops’ past public efforts to address the challenge of same-sex “marriage” had been “ineffective” and even “counterproductive.”

Father Sullins wrote that his own research showed that young Catholics — in contrast to young evangelicals — accounted for the marked shift in support for homosexual rights. His article suggested that theological dissent fomented by Catholic “elites,” combined with the Church’s failure to win broad acceptance of Humanae Vitae, had paved the way for growing Catholic tolerance of same-sex unions.

The Vatican has urged Catholics to resist any moral acceptance or legal recognition of “homosexual unions,” including civil unions. Yet some Catholic universities continue to provide a platform for individuals and organizations that challenge Church teaching on sacramental marriage and sexual ethics.

The Arcus Foundation will fund four academic conferences focused on a central theme — “More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church” — which are “designed to change the conversation about sexual diversity and the Catholic Church.” Two of the conferences will be held at Fordham University and Fairfield University.

Is it really time to accommodate new “voices” that reject Catholic teaching on human sexuality and marriage?  Bishop Cordileone understands the catechetical challenge ahead, but he’s not letting the opinion polls shake his commitment to upholding fundamental truths.

“No one believes in unjust discrimination against sexual minorities,” said Bishop Cordileone. “But the majority of Americans still know — despite what some powerfully influential people in our society would have us believe — that there is something special about the unions of husbands and wives that is unique, unlike any other relationship, and that this special institution of marriage is not discriminatory, but benefits everyone, especially children.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.