Most American Catholics disagree with key Vatican positions, surveys say

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters on Monday earned an earful from one Vatican official over his professed support for the death penalty and his flatly stated belief that Pope Francis is wrong about it, but he's far from the only self-described American Catholic to disagree with the positions held by the Holy See. 

Moral questions might not have easy answers in the Vatican, but they do have certain ones. Abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality and birth control are all wrong according to church dogma; they represent a disrespect for the dignity of human life in the first two cases and for God's "wisely ordered laws of nature" in the third and fourth.

Outside of Rome, however, the beliefs of individual Catholics -- like the beliefs of individual adherents to any ideology -- fan out into a broad moral spectrum. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in the spring, 53 percent of American Catholics share Deters' belief that capital punishment is a valid sentence for people convicted of murder. Forty-two percent share the church's now-officially held belief that it is not acceptable. 

Catholics were more evenly split on the issue than surveyed mainline Protestants, who supported the death penalty at a ratio of 73 to 19. Other religious groups were not included in the report.

According to another Pew Research survey, this one from 2016, only 8 percent of American Catholics believed using contraceptives was morally wrong. Most -- 48 percent -- considered it "not a moral issue." The same percentage said homosexuality was also a moral non-issue, although 32 percent agreed with the Vatican that it was morally wrong.

The only issue in which the majority of surveyed American Catholics shared the Vatican's stance was abortion: 51 percent said they believed it was wrong; 16 percent said they believed it was morally acceptable, and 31 percent said they did not consider it a moral issue.

So, why do those who disagree with the positions of the Pope -- ostensibly an infallible religious authority and practically at least an extremely powerful one -- remain members of the church?

In 1994, priest-professor Father Andrew Greeley wrote in the New York Times that the lived Catholicism of most American Catholics had far more to do with community, heritage and sacramental tradition than encyclicals from Europe. Treasured experiences such as taking one's child to First Communion and celebrating Mass with one's neighbors likely outweigh the importance of any papal decree, he argued.

"While institutional authority, doctrinal propositions and ethical norms are components of a religious heritage -- and important components -- they do not exhaust the heritage," Greeley wrote. "Religion is experience, image and story before it is anything else and after it is everything else."

Writer Megan Sweas voiced a similar sentiment in 2013, when the church hung in a liminal space between one pope and the next. She fondly recalled the Catholic community in which she grew up, the feeling of sharing an identity with people all over the world and her pride in the church's humanitarian work among the poor. 

Moreover, she wrote, Catholics who disagreed with the Vatican "see the church as a ‘big tent'" and want to keep it that way.

"A few people told me that they ‘have a sense of defiance' against the purists," she wrote in the Washington Post. "Leaving would allow others to define the church."

Father Paul Mueller recommended Joe Deters head to confession after his comments on the Pope and the death penalty. Deters said he's comfortable just where he is.

"Look, I am going to answer to God like (Mueller) is, and I feel comfortable doing that," he said. "I got bigger problems than some Jesuit priest writing me letters from the Vatican."

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