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The pope said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. American Catholics will approve.

Even Republican Catholics have a favorable view of lesbians and gay men.

- October 22, 2020

In a surprising announcement, Pope Francis told a documentary filmmaker that same-sex couples should “legally covered” by civil union laws. The Pope’s response suggests a softening of the Vatican’s views of the issue, which for centuries has contended that homosexuality constitutes sinful behavior and that gay marriages would not be allowed in the Catholic church or recognized by the church as a familial relationship.

However, Pope Francis’s new messaging on this issue of same-sex relations may be coming as a result of a seismic shift in the way that many Catholics, especially Catholics in the United States, view homosexuality and the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In fact, U.S. polling data offers little to suggest that the Church would face significant backlash by changing its stance on what was once a centerpiece of the culture wars.

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One of the earliest polling questions on the American public’s view of same-sex marriage was in 1988. The General Social Survey asked, “Do you believe that homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another?” The U.S. general population overwhelmingly opposed this statement in 1988, with nearly nine in ten respondents disapproving of same-sex marriage. Roman Catholics were right in line with the general population; just 12 percent believed that same-sex couples should have marriage’s protections.

However, opinion had shifted dramatically among Roman Catholics by the time the question was asked in 2004; then, 38 percent of Catholics said they supported same-sex marriage. Six years later support had jumped another 10 percentage points; by 2012 over half of Catholics favored marriage equality. In just eight years, from 2010 to 2018, Catholics’ support for same-sex marriage increased by 25 percentage points, reaching a high of 72.6 percent in 2018.

­Allowing same-sex couples to marry is just one dimension of LGBTQ rights. Other polling questions reveal more about how Americans have viewed the LGBTQ community in the last few years. Beginning in July 2019 and continuing through June 2020, the Democracy Fund’s Nationscape survey has asked its 306,000 respondents how favorably they viewed gays and lesbians. Results are clear: Huge swaths of the general public hold a favorable view of the LGBTQ community.

When that data is broken down by age, it’s clear that Catholics over the age of 40 years old are actually more likely to hold favorable views of “gays and lesbians” than non-Catholics. For instance, over three-quarters of Catholics between 50 and 60 years old said that they held a favorable view of gays and lesbians. That’s eight to ten points higher than the among non-Catholics.

Roman Catholics’ views of the LGBTQ community divide by party. For instance, over 80 percent of Catholic Democrats hold a favorable view of gays and lesbians; for political independents, that’s 75 percent; and for Catholic Republicans, just 65 percent. That gives us a fifteen percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans. Still, even Republican Catholics who have a favorable view of gays and lesbians outnumber those with an unfavorable view by two to one.

Looked at broadly, the evidence points to a clear conclusion: U.S. Roman Catholics hold favorable views of a significant portion of the LGBTQ community. It would be difficult to find a demographic group that would be strongly opposed to Pope Francis’s support of civil unions. While it’s impossible to know if this is part of a broader papal strategy to make the Church more welcoming and tolerant to variations in sexual orientation, large shares of American Catholics will certainly applaud this change in policy by the Holy See.

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Ryan P. Burge (@ryanburge) is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.