Many reporters seem to be interpreting the Pope’s recent comment above as some dramatic shift in the Catholic Church. Yet, a similarly “radical” message can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (...doctrine is rarely changed at 30,000 feet during a media interview!). A gay priest who has honored commitments to be celibate and chaste has done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Church. The Catechism generally instructs that Catholics who are sexually attracted towards persons of the same sex “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” For the Church, there is in no sin in sexual orientation.
Other than “lust” (“disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure”), all sins related to sex outlined by the Catholic Church involve actions rather than matters of the mind alone. Survey data indicate that Catholics of all orientations are often challenged by the Church’s teachings on these matters. For example, the Church instructs that sex should only be something that a husband and wife share, while being open to the children that may result from this. Consensual sex between adults under any other circumstances is considered a sin for those involved. This remarkably simple teaching exists in a complex social world. As a standard, it is something that many Catholics fail to live up to (some later address this through the Sacrament of Reconciliation). The media likes to portray the Church as only a place of judgment in these matters, often ignoring its extraordinary capacity to forgive and welcome as well.
Perhaps one of the starkest indicators of many Catholic’s falling short of the Church’s teachings on sexuality is shown in the figure below from the General Social Survey (1,974 total interviews of which 477 were with self-identified as Catholics, resulting in a margin of error of ±4.5 percentage points for this sub-group). In relation to Church teachings, unless one is widowed and remarried or had a marriage annulled and remarried, Catholics should have one sexual partner their whole life or none. On average, Catholics say they have had about six sexual partners since the age of 18 (men report more partners than women, for more about this go here).
About 1 in 20 actually have exactly six partners. The average is a reflection of a split distribution where 13% of adult Catholics have had no sexual partners and 14% have had 10 or more, as shown in the figure below. A quarter say they have had one sexual partner and 12% report two partners. Yet fully, half of adult Catholics say they have had three or more sexual partners in their life.
Of course there is more to the story than numbers of partners. If you’ve had only one sexual partner but you are not married you’ve not observed Church teachings. Only 14% of adult Catholics are married and have had one sex partner. Additionally, 2% are currently widowed and report one sex partner. Another 2% are separated or divorced and have had only one sex partner (civil divorce is not a sin nor is cohabitation between a unmarried couple abstaining from sex). Some portion of the 8% who are married with two partners may have been previously widowed or had an annulment. Thus, at the most, one would estimate that maybe 39% of adult Catholics (including those with no sex partners) have and continue to observe the Church’s teachings on marriage and sex. Most have not always done so (note that some portion of those married with two partners were not widowed nor had an annulment).
There is an attitudinal parallel to the number of sexual partners results noted above. In conflict with Church teachings, six in ten Catholics say they feel that it is “not wrong at all” for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage. At the same time, the second figure shows that it is still the case that more than eight in ten Catholics believe that once one is married, sex with someone other than your spouse is “always wrong.”
The widespread belief that cheating on a spouse is always wrong doesn’t prevent some Catholics from doing this. Eight percent of sexually-active Catholic adults say they have cheated on their spouse (12 percent of Catholics who have ever been married).
Catholics are more conflicted on sexual relations between people of the same sex. Half say this is “not wrong at all” and 37% say it is “always wrong.
The GSS also asks about the sex of a respondent’s sexual partners. Some 3.7% of adult Catholics report a sex partner at some point in their life who was of the same sex. This is equivalent to about 2.2 million adults. Fewer, 2.3% of self-identified Catholics, or about 1.4 million adults, self-identifies as gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual in the GSS (aggregated from 2008, 2010, and 2012 to maximize the number of respondents). Although 34% of gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual Catholics say they were raised Catholic, only 19% self-identify as Catholic as adults.
Is it possible that Catholics who attend Mass weekly struggle less with the Church’s teachings on sex? If one aggregates the GSS data from 2008 to 2012 (to provide a sufficient sub-group N for analysis), only 38% of Catholic men who attend church every week or more often have either one sex partner or none (49% have two or fewer partners). Some 65% of Catholic women who attend church weekly have had one sex partner or none (80% have two or fewer partners). The struggles among weekly Mass attenders appear to be rarer, especially among women, but still many in the pews have fallen astray of the Church’s principles in their life practice at some point.
The Church is not going to change its teachings to condone sex outside of marriage (…no matter what any American polling finds or how many times a jounralist scolds it for being “out of touch”). But the Church may choose to more intentionally emphasize that judgment is not all it has to offer to those who struggle to live up to the Church’s principles at all times in their life. Forgiveness and compassion are other hallmarks of the faith. What the media noticed in Pope Francis’ comments on that plane from Brazil has always been a part of the Catholic Church; just not often acknowledged by many.