Young American Catholics and the Normalization of Lesbian and Gay Sexuality

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In recent years we have witnessed the rise of two national political leaders—Joseph Biden and Nancy Pelosi—who claim to be devout Catholics while actively promoting radical pro-abortion and pro-LGBT agendas. This has brought into sharp relief the growing disparity between two thousand years of unvarying Church teaching on these issues against the opinions of large swaths of professing Catholics. This was made clear in recent polling that showed about two-thirds of U.S. Catholics believing that Catholic politicians who supported abortion should be welcome to receive Communion and an astonishing 78% who said the same thing about those that actively support homosexuality.

Amazed at this last fact, I looked at gay attitudes, attraction, orientation, and actions among Catholic teens and young adults to see how, and how much, things were changing. I used the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a respected survey focused on the marriage, family, and sex lives of many thousands of Americans ages 15 into their 40’s, released every other year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I compared 2013 versus 2019 to see changes over that six-year period. For the sake of comparison, I compared Catholics with those who had no religious affiliation—the so-called “Nones”—and the three largest wings of Protestantism: Evangelical, Mainline, and historically Black churches. My focus was on those 27 years of age and younger—the future of the Church.

To measure moral acceptance of homosexuality, the NSFG asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are all right.” As Figure 1 shows, there has been a profound increase in agreement with this statement among Catholics of both genders between 15 and 27 years of age. This position now commands a super majority among young professing Catholics. Only “Nones” are more liberal. Moreover, these Catholics are barely distinguishable from Mainline Protestants, whose denominations have mostly officially accepted homosexuality, gay clergy, and same-sex marriage.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Percent Agreeing that Sexual Relation Between Two Consenting Adults of the Same Sex are “All Right”

Generally, those Catholics who said that they attend church services at least weekly, and that their religion is “very important” in their daily life, were less likely to affirm liberal views on homosexuality. However, even among them the results are discouraging for those who embrace historic Catholic teaching on sexuality, as Figure 2 shows. Remarkably—except for female weekly church attenders—the increase in acceptance of sex between two people of the same sex has been greater among the most outwardly committed than among young Catholics as a whole. For example, among women who say their Catholic faith is very important, the percentage affirming homosexuality rose from 33% to 76% in six years, which is well beyond doubling.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Percent Agreeing that Sexual Relation Between Two Consenting Adults of the Same Sex are “All Right” – Catholics Who Attend Church At Least Weekly or Consider Their Religion to be “Very Important”

What about changes in the degree of same-sex sexual attraction? We find some troubling realities for women, but a little better, if not good, news for men. 

On the question of whether respondents were sexually attracted to those of the opposite sex, as Figure 3 makes clear, young male Catholics did not change during this period. As of the 2019 release, 93% were only attracted to females, 5% mostly to women, and only 2% were equally, mostly, or solely attracted to males. 

However, among females, a sizable and significant shift occurred toward being at least somewhat sexually attracted to other women. Breaking this down further, in the 2019 NSFG release, only a bit over three-quarters were solely attracted to males, while 13% were only “mostly” so. Fully one in ten said they were equally, more, or only attracted to females. While they certainly stood apart from the “Nones”—less than half of whom were only sexually attracted to males as of the last NSFG—and those identified with Black Protestant churches, they stood about the same as Mainline Protestants. 

Figure 3

Figure 3: Percent Sexual Attracted Only to Members of the Opposite Sex

On the issue of sexual orientation, as Figure 4 shows, there were also no significant changes in young Catholic males over this period. As of the last NSFG, 97% identified as heterosexual, 1% as homosexual, and 2% as bisexual. 

Once again, the story is different among young women. While the differences between the 2013 and 2019 releases were not statistically significant, by the last NSFG 12% identified as something other than heterosexual—specifically, 2% homosexual and 10% bisexual. The percentages that viewed themselves as one of the latter were literally about four times higher for women compared to men.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Percent Who Self-Identified as “Heterosexual”

Last but not least, we have the percentages who admit to having actually engaged in same-sex sexual relations at some point. Here, I restricted my analysis to those 18 to 27, which enables respondents more time to have developed a traceable “sexual history.”

As Figure 5 shows—although the differences between the 2013 and 2019 NSFG are not significant for either, there is significant cause for concern, especially for the young women. Fifteen percent of them, compared to only 3% of males—roughly five times more—had at least experimented with gay sexual liaisons as of the 2019 NSFG. On the positive side, Catholic females were less likely to have engaged in same-sex contact than any of the other religious groups. For males, the same is true except for their similarity to Mainline Protestants. 

Figure 5

Figure 5: Percent Who Have Ever Engaged in Same-Sex Sexual Liaisons

So, what differences do regular church attendance and regarding religious faith as “very important” to daily life make among young Catholics in the areas of same-sex attraction, sexual orientation, and having engaged in same-sex relations? To answer this, I departed from the 2013 versus 2019 comparison and combined the last two NSFG surveys—that is, the 2017 and 2019 releases. This enabled me to increase the sample size, since small numbers in some narrow subcategories could undermine accurate analysis.

For males, I was disappointed to see that church attendance did not make any significant difference in any of these three areas. Self-identified importance of religion, however, proved significant, but only for ever having had same-sex liaisons. Among Catholic males 18 to 27, those who regarded their religion as “not important” were more likely to have had sex with another male—12% versus only 5% for those who answered “somewhat,” and 4% of those who answered “very” important.

Among Catholic females, church attendance was only significantly related to whether respondents 18-to-27 had ever engaged in same-sex liaisons, but this was powerful. Among both those who attended never to less than monthly, and only one to three times a month, 14% had done so, versus only 5% of those who attended weekly or more.

Among the women, self-identified importance of religion was significantly related to all three measures. These are shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Table 1: Differences in Same-Sex Sexual Attraction, Orientation, and Action by Importance of Religion to Daily Life among Catholic Females in NSFG 2017 and 2019 Combined

I realize that these facts are depressing. However, I sincerely hope that such doses of reality produce not despair or compromise, but positive action among Catholic leaders—clergy and laity alike—who are serious about promoting historic Catholic and biblical teaching and practice related to all sexual practices and attraction outside of Holy Matrimony, including same-sex sexual relations. 

Providing detailed recommendations is outside the purview of this article. However, it is clear that many Catholic churches need to do a better job instructing young believers on sexuality, embedded within the rich theology, anthropology, teaching on marriage and family and more that the Catholic Church has embraced for many centuries, and responding to modern pro-LGBT arguments. It is clear, too, that a sizable percentage of young Catholics need to be encouraged to confess and forsake gay sexual affections and actions—with firmness drenched in love and compassion, without crass judgmentalism.

More attention needs to be paid particularly to young women, since they are obviously much more vulnerable than men to gay ideology and temptation. Young Catholics need to be encouraged to attend religious services regularly. But then, churches need to use the pulpits, youth groups, and catechism classes to communicate more truth about sexuality with clarity leavened by kindness, so that attendance makes more of a difference in their lives. Moreover, young Catholics need to be encouraged to apply their faith to their daily lives, and not just be—as the old saying goes—“Sunday Christians” (or worse). 

May God give us ears to hear and eyes to see in this vital area before it is too late.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

David Ayers is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Economics and Sociology at Grove City College, where he has also served previously as Dean of the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, and as Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is author of two textbooks with Cengage, and most recently of Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham, 2019). His book Beyond the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical will be released later this year. He resides in Grove City, Pennsylvania, has been married to Kathy since 1982, has six children, three son-in-laws and six grandchildren. He holds his Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University, his MA in Sociology from American University, and his BA in Psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

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