Pope Francis' papacy softening hearts of America's 'cultural Catholics'

A new poll suggests that a substantial portion of Americans who have left the Catholic Church but still feel connected to it could be swayed by Pope Francis.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Soap bubbles fly as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Wednesday.

For Darcy Fargo, the conservative political teachings of the faith were the hardest thing to overcome when she returned to Catholicism a few months ago.

Mrs. Fargo had grown up Catholic, but in college found herself moving away from the church, so much so that for years she was a staunch, “militant” atheist, who would sometimes deride other for their religious beliefs. It wasn’t until a friend challenged her to be open-minded about faith that she started to delve back into it.

A chance meeting with a priest led to the New York resident's first religious experience for more than a decade.

“I just got the sense of awe, happiness, and something greater that I had lost in the 10 to 12 years I left the church,” she says.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center shows that Fargo’s experience is relatively rare among Catholics, but it also suggests that the papacy of Pope Francis could begin to change that.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents who considered themselves ex-Catholics said they couldn't imagine themselves going back to the Roman Catholic Church. But the poll also found that as many as 9 percent of Americans are “cultural Catholics,” people who do not consider themselves religiously Catholic, but culturally Catholic or partially Catholic in other ways.

And nearly half of them – 43 percent – were open to possibly rejoining the church, the data showed.

Significantly, the more-liberal leanings of the new pope neatly embrace the worldview of cultural Catholics. And beyond cultural Catholics, the poll showed that practicing American Catholics, too, were surprisingly open to nontraditional family structures, sexuality, and contraception.  

Some 66 percent of Catholics, for example, said that it was acceptable for children to be raised by a gay or lesbian couple, according to the poll.

The pope's effort to appeal to the moderate views of a broad base of Catholics, instead of appeasing hyperconservatives in the church leadership, is at the core of what has made him attractive to many American Catholics, says Bruce Morrill, a Catholic studies professor at Vanderbilt University and a Jesuit priest.

“Pope Francis has proven to be a populist, not in the political sense, but in the fact that’s he’s trying to find a middle way, he’s trying to connect with the population at the base, not at the extremes,” Professor Morrill says.

According to the study, a majority of American Catholics do not find it sinful to use contraception or cohabit with a romantic partner outside of marriage, especially if they have a child to care for. Their thoughts on same-sex marriage are evenly split, with 46 percent on both sides of whether the Catholic Church “should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.”

And while the majority of Catholics do believe that abortion is sinful, that belief ranks low when respondents were asked what was "essential" to being a Catholic, behind things like “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and “working to help the poor and needy.”

Fargo says she still has trouble reconciling her own moral code with official church doctrine, particularly in the case of same-sex marriage and contraception, which she and her husband used after having their first child, who was diagnosed with a form of autism.

“My best friend happens to be gay, and I had a hard time seeing how their relationship is any more or less valued than the relationship I had with my husband,” she says, adding: “My son is the love of my life, and I would do anything for him, but having another child who is special-needs might be too much for me to handle.”

At least for now, she lies somewhere in the middle of traditional church teachings and her own beliefs, a place she says she feels most American Catholics are in.

“Oftentimes it’s an either-or world we live in,” Fargo says. “But I don’t believe our God is like that, and I don’t believe our faith is like that.”

The increased focus on charity and mercy during the papacy of Pope Francis has boosted the popularity of the Catholic leader across America and the globe – both inside and out of the Catholic community. Currently favorability ratings of Pope Francis sit at 66 percent.

“I think Pope Francis is better at stressing forgiveness,” Fargo said. “And softening the perception of an all-or-nothing attitude towards Catholicism.”

Erin Donnelly remembers starting to turn away from the Catholic Church because this attitude. On the first day of her Catholic high school’s religion class, the teacher talked about the horrifying nature of abortion. Same thing happened on the second day. And the third.

Noticing a pattern, Ms. Donnelly took out her notebook and made a tally mark for every class where the teacher negatively mentioned abortion.

She had a mark for every single day until the end of the school year.

Donnelly was born into a Catholic family and went through a religious education. By middle school she says she was “really Catholic.”

That changed at Catholic school, where she was hit hard with ideas about abortion, sexuality, and contraception that seemed overly harsh and out-of-touch with her experience.

“In high school when they pushed these really conservative things on you, that really turned me off,” she says. “It dwelled on these minuscule political points that moved away from the main point of the religion, which is to help your neighbor, be kind, and believe in God.”

While she doesn’t practice regularly anymore, Donnelly says that “being Catholic is a part of who I am as a person and a part of my family history.”

In that way, Donnelly fits neatly into Pew's cultural Catholic demographic. What was perhaps most surprising about the poll, says Pew Research Center associate director of research Gregory Smith, was the finding that about 45 percent of the American population have had some relationship with Catholicism.

Since assuming the papacy two years ago, Francis has shown a renewed focus on social justice, putting him in line with the more-liberalized strain of American Catholicism found in the poll.

In 2013, he gave his famous “who am I to judge” statement when confronted with a question on how he would deal with a homosexual cleric. Last month, the pope reiterated his idea that the church should be open to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, saying there were "no closed doors" for them.

And on Tuesday, he met the divisive issue of abortion with a message of compassion, using his authority to allow all Catholic priests around the world to offer reconciliation to women who have terminated their pregnancies.

“I think Francis’ take on the church will appeal to Roman Catholics and even young Catholics because it appeal to the best desires in life,” Morrill said.

Even so, Morrill cautioned against tying the popularity of the pope with an ability to bring people back into the church; former Catholics have left the church for many reasons.

But Donnelly says that Pope Francis is doing the right things to bring former Catholics back.

“Especially when you grow up in the church, having a progressive leader makes being curious about your faith a much less scary proposition,” Donnelly says.

Donnelly, who works as a newspaper reporter, recently found herself on assignment in a Catholic Church not on Dec. 25 for the first time in years, with a new open attitude toward her faith.

“I found value in going to mass and taking communion,” she says thinking back. “I felt that sense of community.”

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