As the U.S. Catholic Church continues to lose members, younger Catholics are increasingly progressive

This article was originally published in 2014. The confession box still stands, but marriage is in decline in the United States. According to a report released by the Pew Research Center, marriage today is…

As the U.S. Catholic Church continues to lose members, younger Catholics are increasingly progressive

This article was originally published in 2014.

The confession box still stands, but marriage is in decline in the United States.

According to a report released by the Pew Research Center, marriage today is about one-third as common as it was at the height of the 20th century. In 1960, nine out of 10 U.S. women between the ages of 25 and 54 had been married, and the share held by those who are still tied to the institution is only about a quarter today.

And while the official Catholic Church has embraced same-sex marriage since the late 1990s, the church has consistently opposed women’s ordination and cohabitation. That’s not surprising since the Catholic Church remains the largest organized religion in the United States. But Pew Research has found that the position has led to shifts in membership. In 1950, 78 percent of Americans who said they were Catholic said they were part of the church’s clergy. That number dropped to 58 percent in 2017.

One study even found that the smaller American Catholic Church has attracted more defectors than traditional churches. In 1967, the year before the priesthood was made more open to women, the percentage of U.S. Catholics who said they were members of a traditional religious congregation fell from 66 percent to 49 percent. Since then, the Catholic Church has grown more liberal, especially among U.S. Catholics. But the traditional Catholic churches continue to suffer. In 2012, Pew Research found that just 55 percent of U.S. Catholics were members of a traditional religious congregation.

Now, the church finds itself poised to lose at least some of that membership by opposing gay marriage. At the same time, the acceptance of same-sex marriage is a generational shift. Older Catholics in the church may not feel the need to rush to conform to the desires of a younger generation.

Less than half of millennial Catholics approve of gay marriage, Pew Research has found. And older U.S. Catholics who used to be strongly supportive may be joining their Catholic peers on the other side of the debate. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 42 percent of U.S. Catholics who were active in the church in the 1960s and 1970s said they approved of same-sex marriage. By 2014, that number had plummeted to 31 percent.

The church has shifted its stance on women’s roles after decades of major discussions about the place of women in the church, but the same gender limits exist in America’s Catholic communities.

The Pew Research Center’s “America’s Christians” project has found that while the U.S. Catholic church is divided on women’s roles, female Catholics face fewer barriers than men do. Despite the perception that women are still being shut out of high-ranking positions, only about 10 percent of leaders in the church (the pope among them) are women. The same is true of middle-aged and older clergy, according to the Pew Research Center’s research. Women and men between the ages of 25 and 54 said they expected their priests to be priests, but men between 55 and 64 had a dimmer view.

Pope Francis has begun opening new avenues for discussion about the role of women. In 2016, for instance, he apologized for sexual abuse by Catholic priests and for holding against women allegations of abuse. In the annual U.S. general assembly, he spoke out against sexism and held a session of the bishops’ annual plenary assembly in which he celebrated the role of women in his own life.

It remains to be seen how Pope Francis will reshape the church after his second coming to power. But at least as far as U.S. Catholics are concerned, the latest figures indicate that there has been a fundamental shift in attitudes about women in the church.

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