Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception and are split on whether women and married men should become priests, according to a large new poll released Sunday and commissioned by the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision. On the topic of gay marriage, two-thirds of Catholics polled agree with church leaders.
Overall, however, the poll of more than 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries reveals a church dramatically divided between the developing world in Africa and Asia that hews closely to doctrine on these issues and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America that strongly support practices the church teaches are immoral.
The widespread disagreement with Catholic doctrine on abortion and contraception and the hemispheric chasm lay bare the challenge for Pope Francis' year-old papacy and the unity it has engendered.
Among the findings:
• 19 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 30 percent in the Latin American countries surveyed agree with church teaching that divorcees who remarry outside the church should not receive Communion, compared with 75 percent in the most Catholic African countries.
• 30 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 36 percent in the United States agree with the church ban on female priests, compared with 80 percent in Africa and 76 percent in the Philippines, the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia.
• 40 percent of Catholics in the United States oppose gay marriage, compared with 99 percent in Africa.
The poll, done by Bendixen & Amandi International for Univision, did not include Catholics everywhere. It focused on 12 countries across the continents with some of the world's largest Catholic populations. The countries are home to more than six of 10 Catholics globally.
"This is a balancing act. They have to hold together two increasingly divergent constituencies. The church has lost its ability to dictate what people do," said Ronald Inglehart, founding president of the World Values Survey, a major ongoing global research project. "Right now the less developed world is staying true to the old world values, but it's gradually eroding even there. [Pope Francis] doesn't want to lose the legitimacy of the more educated people."
After his election to the papacy 11 months ago, Pope Francis seemed to immediately grasp the significance of the divisions among the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. He has chosen inclusive language, has played down the importance of following the hierarchy and has warned against the church locking itself up "in small-minded rules." The poll reflects previous ones in finding that the vast majority of Catholics appreciate his approach.
Other faiths have seen many fissures over similar questions about doctrine, including Protestant denominations and Judaism.
Pope Francis appears particularly eager to engage with divisions around sex, marriage and gender and has called a rare "extraordinary synod" this fall on "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family." To prepare for the meeting, Pope Francis has asked bishops around the world to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things.
Of the seven questions pollsters asked about hot-button issues, there appeared to be the greatest global agreement on contraception (opposing church teachings) and gay marriage (supporting the church's stance).
Seventy-eight percent of Catholics across all countries surveyed support the use of contraceptives, which violate the church's teaching that sex should always be had with an openness toward procreation. The church teaches natural family planning, which Catholics can use to plan sex and attempt to avoid getting pregnant when they don't want to.
More than 90 percent of Catholics in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France support the use of contraception. Those less inclined to support it were in the Philippines (68 percent), Congo (44 percent) and Uganda (43 percent). In the United States, 79 percent of Catholics support using contraception.
The poll also showed 66 percent of Catholics opposing same-sex marriage, with majorities in eight of the 12 countries surveyed agreeing with church doctrine.
The poll suggests that Pope Francis in his first year has proved apt at navigating this diverse flock. Eighty-seven percent of Catholics around the world said the Argentine pastor is doing an excellent (41 percent) or good (46 percent) job. Catholics in Mexico were least likely to approve of the pope's performance, at 70 percent.
The poll showed stark divisions among Catholics over church teachings on abortion, divorce and remarriage. Catholics who don't receive an annulment or who marry again outside a Catholic Church setting aren't eligible for Communion and are formally considered not in unity with the faith.