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Elected Officials' Catholic Dilemma On Same-Sex Marriage

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It wouldn't come as a shock if New York politicians are starting to sweat -- not from the summer heat, but from worry about the political fallout from the legislative vote to make New York the sixth state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to legalize same-sex marriage. After all, New York's Catholic Bishops have expressed outrage over the vote, and nearly 40 percent of New York voters are Catholic. But, the polls show a surprising reality that may ease the worries of some elected officials even as it makes their job harder. There are in fact two very different Catholic voices that elected officials in New York and elsewhere around the country have to navigate: the big "C" voice of the Catholic bishops who are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage, and the little "c" voices of Catholics in the pews who are largely supportive.

In fact, rank-and-file Catholics are generally more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than Americans overall. A May 2011 survey by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found 56 percent of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to 51 percent in the general population. These numbers are not anomalies. Survey after survey show majority support for legal recognition of same-sex relationships among Catholics. A March 2011 ABC/Washington Post poll found 60 percent of Catholics support marriage for same-sex couples, compared to 53 percent of the general population. A January 2011 Quinnipiac University survey found 52 percent of New York Catholic voters support allowing same-sex couples to marry, compared to 56 percent of all New York voters.

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that Catholic support has slipped slightly with New York Catholic voters now evenly split (48 percent -48 percent), but that poll also revealed that seven-in-10 New York Catholic voters said that opposition to same-sex marriage by religious leaders made no difference in their support.

Support is strong across the board for gay and lesbian rights among Catholics. More than seven-in-10 (73 percent) Catholics support laws that would protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace, and 60 percent of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. There's also a large theological gulf between official church teachings and rank-and-file Catholics: a solid majority (56 percent) of Catholics -- 10 points higher than the general population -- say sex between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.

These stark differences pose a dilemma for politicians who are trying to discern the Catholic voice in their districts on the issues of same-sex marriage and other rights for gay and lesbian Americans. With the bishops sending one message and lay Catholics sending another, politicians may have the unenviable task of choosing between the official capital "C" Church hierarchy represented by the bishops and the lower case "c" church represented by the laity.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones on his new blog "Figuring Faith" at the Washington Post's On Faith section.