Those Catholics and Their Sex-Having Ways

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Pew has a new survey on Catholics in America. While the Catholics are always fascinating, they’ll be in the spotlight for the month of September: In a few weeks, Pope Francis will visit the U.S. for the first time in his papacy—and his life. The pontiff is expected to talk about poverty and the environment, keeping in theme with his mic drop of an encyclical from earlier this summer, Laudato Si.

But he’ll especially focus on issues of family life, including marriage, divorce, sexuality, and contraception use; he’s coming for the Church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and just weeks after he leaves, he’ll gather with bishops in Rome for an important synod, or meeting, that may shift the Church’s posture toward some of these issues.

So what do American Catholics think about family life, per Pew?

The more relevant question might be what Americans think about family life. Catholics’ views roughly mirror the general public’s perspective on issues like gay relationships and couples living together before marriage, and they feel just as accepting of divorced, non-married, single, and gay parents.

Catholic teachings start to show a bit more on the topics of abortion and contraception. While about 48 percent of Americans believe it’s sinful to have an abortion, roughly 57 percent of current Catholics feel the same. And while 10 percent of Americans believe contraception use is a sin, about 17 percent of current Catholics agree.

Still, these numbers don’t show great alignment between the pope and his American flock. Throughout his papacy, Francis has strongly condemned a “throw-away culture” that isn’t oriented toward relationships, building strong families, and having kids. When he arrives in the U.S., he’ll be arriving in the mothership of that throw-away culture, not least because many Americans conduct their sex lives and relationships without thinking about getting married or having kids.

As is his way, Francis has complicated the Church’s posture toward these issues, not by changing dogma, but by shifting the tone. On Tuesday, as my colleague Adam noted, the pope issued a letter asking priests to use the upcoming Jubilee Year to offer forgiveness to contrite women who have had an abortion, saying:

The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.

But make no mistake: The pope believes that abortion is a sin, and he believes God intends for humans to live in married, child-filled families.

Over the next few month or so, it will be important to watch how Francis talks about these issues—and whether the Church shifts its footing on a few specific issues, including married priests and communion for the divorced. I’ll be keeping tabs on a lot of this, including dispatches from Philly, so stay tuned.