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Number crunching: Catholics and same-sex unions

Number crunching: Catholics and same-sex unions

Julie Clague

In July 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy’s lack of legal protection for same-sex couples was a breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[1] Italy took the first step toward the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships on 25 February 2016, when the Italian Senate voted to allow civil unions for heterosexual and same-sex couples.[2] For the civil union bill to become law, the backing of the lower house will also be required. Previous efforts to enact civil union legislation in Italy have stalled amid divided public and political opinion.

Opinion polls show that Italian support for same-sex civil unions has fluctuated in recent years. The New York Times reports that Italian public support for same-sex unions fell from 67 per cent in May 2015 to 46 per cent in January 2016, largely as a result of public concern over the expansion of adoption and surrogacy rights for gay couples in civil unions.[3] There remains widespread opposition in Italy to child adoption by same-sex couples. A Eurispes survey of Italian public opinion, published in January 2015, found opposition to so-called gay adoption stood at 72.2 per cent. The same Eurispes survey found 59.2 per cent of Italians oppose gay marriage, a hardening of attitudes since 2014 when opposition stood at 50.7 per cent.[4]

Italy’s 49 million Catholics comprise 81.2 per cent of the Italian population.[5] To a substantial degree, therefore, Italian public opinion reflects the opinion of Italian Catholics. For evidence of Italian Catholic opinion on gay marriage, one can point to the opinion poll conducted by Univision Communications in the run-up to the Synod of Bishops’ Extraordinary General Assembly on the Family in 2014, which found that 66 per cent of Italian Catholics oppose marriage between persons of the same sex (30 per cent expressed support for gay marriage).[6] Overall, there remains considerable antipathy towards the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships in Italy.

Ireland is also a Catholic majority nation; 84 per cent of the Irish population identify as Catholic, a similar proportion to that of Italy.[7] Yet, in recent years, Ireland has adopted a more socially accepting approach to same-sex partnerships than that of Italy. In May 2015, after a high turn-out at the polls, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular referendum. The Catholic vote was divided. The Catholic hierarchy campaigned against gay marriage, but many prominent lay Catholics supported the Yes campaign. 62 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of marriage equality; 38 per cent voted against.[8] The referendum result shows that many Catholics chose to reject the stance of the Irish bishops. A survey of the Irish Republic conducted in November 2015 found that 67 per cent of adults would feel very comfortable or fairly comfortable if a family member married someone of the same sex (21 per cent stated they would feel very or fairly uncomfortable), confirming the high degree of national support for marriage equality.[9]

How does Catholic opinion in Italy and Ireland compare with Catholic attitudes to same-sex marriage across the globe? The best comparative study of Catholic opinion is the 2014 Univision survey. The survey recorded Catholic attitudes to a variety of moral and ecclesiological questions across twelve nations with large Catholic populations. Taken together these nations are home to 60 per cent of the world’s Catholics. The survey was conducted between 18 December 2013 and 15 January 2014, so the results are now somewhat dated, especially given the global expansion of legal rights for gay couples in the intervening two years and the rapidly evolving  cultural and attitudinal shifts occurring in relation to this question. However, the Univision poll remains the most comprehensive survey of Catholic opinion ever conducted, and is of particular value because it offers insight into attitudes in the global South, which are under-researched. The Univision survey found that, across the twelve countries, 66 per cent of Catholics oppose marriage between two persons of the same sex.[10] The responses by country to the question ‘Do you support or oppose marriage between two persons of the same sex?’ are shown in Table 1 (with countries ranked according to the size of their Catholic population):

Table 1                   Do you support or oppose marriage between two persons of the same sex?[11]


Support %

Oppose %

No answer %













United States
























Democratic Republic of Congo













Just two of the twelve nations – the United States of America and Spain – registered Catholic majorities in support of same-sex marriage. In most nations surveyed, majority Catholic opinion is in step with Church teaching, which disapproves of same-sex marriage; though the degree of agreement with Church teaching varies, ranging from 47 per cent in Brazil to 99 percent in Uganda. It is clear that national context makes a difference to Catholic opinion on this question.

At the conclusion of Synod 2015, Pope Francis remarked on how the Synod debate had reflected the varied perspectives of the participants, and he drew attention to the sometimes striking role that cultural context can play in shaping attitudes towards matters of marriage and family life: ‘what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse’. Francis was candid about how transcultural differences among the world’s bishops can give rise to disagreements and even to polarized views on certain issues: ‘what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous –almost! – for a bishop from another’.[12] In the case of same-sex partnerships, however, the bishops at the Synod were singing from the same hymn sheet. The Final Report of the Synod on the Family reiterated the Church’s rejection of same-sex partnerships, with a large majority of bishops (221 to 37) voting in favour of the adoption of the following statement: ‘there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family’.[13]  

Despite Catholic opposition, nations across the globe are enacting legal protections for same-sex couples in the form of marriage or civil partnership legislation.  By the end of 2015, 22 countries had legalised marriage between persons of the same sex.[14] This means that approximately 32 per cent of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics live in a country that permits same-sex marriage.[15] However, 76 nations criminalise homosexual relationships. In these countries, according to the United Nations, ‘discriminatory laws criminalize private, consensual same-sex relationships, exposing millions of individuals to the risk of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment – and even, in at least five countries, the death penalty’.[16] These 76 countries are home to 127m Catholics, or 12 per cent of the global Catholic population. Seven (Belize, Grenada, Kiribati, Angola, Dominica, Burundi, and Seychelles) have majority Catholic populations. In six of these seven countries, the penalty for consenting sexual activity is imprisonment, with some prison terms lasting 10 or 14 years.

The future is in our hands. We can be the change we want to see in the world.

[1] Anon., ‘Italy breaches rights over gay marriage – European Court’, UK: BBC News Online, 21 July 2015.

[2] Anon, ‘Italy gay rights: Senate backs watered-down civil union bill’, UK: BBC News Online, 25 February 2016.

[3] Jim Yardley, ‘Italy Divided Over Effort to Legalize Civil Unions for Gays’, The New York Times January 24, 2016.

[4] Cf. ANSA, ‘More Italians favour civil unions but not gay marriage’, Italy: Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, 30 January 2015.

[5] Cf. Pew Research Center, ‘The Global Catholic Population’, Washington DC, February 13, 2013.

[6] Univision Communications, ‘Voice of the People’, (New York, February 2014), p. 7.

[7] Cf. Central Statistics Office, This is Ireland: Highlights From Census 2011, Part 1, Dublin: Stationery Office, March 2012, p. 42.

[8] Anon., ‘Hugh Republic of Ireland vote for gay marriage’, UK: BBC News Online, 23 May 2015. 

[9] Gerry Moriarty, ‘New survey finds high level of acceptance of same-sex marriage North and South’, The Irish Times, 4 November 2015.

[10] Univision Communications, Global Survey of Roman Catholics, Executive Summary, (New York, February 2014), p. 13.

[11] Univision, ‘Voice of the People’, p. 7.

[12] Pope Francis, ‘Address at the Conclusion of the Synod of Bishops’, 24 October 2015.

[13] Synod of Bishops, ‘Final Report of the Synod of Bishops to the Holy Father, Pope Francis’, 24 October 2015, n. 76. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 2003, n. 4

[15] This estimate is based upon Catholic population data: Pew Research Center, ‘Table: Christian Population in Numbers by Country’, Washington DC, December 19, 2011.

[16] Free & Equal, United Nations campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, ‘Fact Sheet 43: Criminalization’.