The Catholic Church has long had a reputation for its socially conservative doctrines. This tradition, though, has apparently not kept pace with the beliefs of its American followers, particularly when it comes to gay marriage. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 62 percent of American Catholics think that same-sex marriage should be legalized, a rate 9 percent higher than the general population.
That's quite a liberal tilt for any demographic. Catholics, as a group, support gay marriage at a higher rate than Whites (47 percent), African Americans (51 percent), Hispanics (59 percent), Independents (55 percent), and Californians (61 percent).
Catholics' shift on gay marriage, though, has been lost on their religion's leadership -- a point best represented by the Vatican's decision to appoint one of the church's top anti-gay marriage advocates as the Archbishop of the San Francisco Archdiocese, of all places.
Salvatore Cordileone, who began his new job in October, helped create Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative banning gay marriage in California. He has also said things like:
"Legislating for the right for people of the same sex to marry is like legalising male breastfeeding."
"The reality of marriage as the union of a mother and a father is grounded in our very biology."
After the Vatican named Cordileone to the post in July, some Catholics interpreted the decision as the church reaffirming its opposition to same-sex marriage: send the point-man in the church's battle against marriage equality to the city where the gay rights movement began.
But as the Times/CBS polls shows, the Cordileone appointment was simply another sign of an institution growing increasingly disconnected from its people. Seventy-eight percent of American Catholics say that they are more likely to follow their conscience than the pope's teachings when it comes to difficult moral decisions.
Gay marriage is just one part of the trend. Fifty-four percent of American Catholics would like to see "more liberal teachings" from the next pope. More than two-thirds think that women should be allowed to be priests and that priests should be allowed to get married. Nearly three-quarters think the next pope should be for "the use of artificial methods of birth control." And 91 percent think the new pope should support "the use of condoms to prevent the spread of H.I.V. and other diseases."
The respondents' sentiments are a condemnation of the officials at the top, but don't reflect how they feel about the faith leaders on the ground. More than half call the Catholic Church "out-of-touch with the needs of Catholics today," but 72 percent think their own parish priest is "in-touch" with those needs.