epa04907970 Pope Francis as he leads special prayers marking a day he has dedicated to praising and protecting nature’s marvels in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 01 September 2015. Any Catholic priest – rather than just bishops and selected prelates – will be able to pardon the grave sin of abortion during the upcoming Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis said 01 September. EPA/Maurizio Brambatti(Photo: Murizio Brambatti, EPA)

Pope Francis’ evolving views on a host of fraught social issues have surprised observers since his rise to the Vatican two-and-a-half years ago. Now an unprecedented bit of research shows that USA Catholics’ views may be just as surprising.
A trove of data out Wednesday from the Pew Research Center finds that the typical American Catholic doesn’t find it sinful to use contraception or to live with a romantic partner outside of marriage. While nearly half of Catholics believe the church should not recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, just as many think it should.
The findings come as Pope Francis this week waded into one of the thorniest topics of his papacy: abortion.
On Tuesday, he said priests can forgive the “sin of abortion” for women who are sorry about it. In a letter published by the Vatican, the pontiff — who has been striving to build a more inclusive church — said priests will have the power during a special “Holy Year of Mercy” that begins in December.
The new Pew survey of 5,122 adults found that while most Catholics — 57% — believe it’s “sinful” to terminate a pregnancy, opposing abortion ranks relatively low among a list of 10 beliefs when it comes to defining what’s “essential” to being a Catholic. Only about one in three respondents said opposing abortion was essential to being a Catholic. By contrast, about two-thirds said “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was essential.
“I think it just says something about how salient this issue is to Catholics overall,” said Jessica Martinez, a Pew senior researcher. “When they think about living out their faith day to day, it doesn’t seem like opposing abortion is high on the list for most Catholics.”
Like much of the survey, the questions asking Catholics to rank essential beliefs are unprecedented for Pew, Martinez said, so they don’t have comparable data from previous years.
In his brief tenure, which began in the spring of 2013, Pope Francis has laid out sometimes controversial …Read More