The majority of Britain’s Roman Catholics oppose the church’s traditional teaching on sex, according to a survey published just days before the Pope arrives in the country.
Only a small proportion of churchgoers agreed with the Vatican’s doctrines that contraception is wrong, homosexual acts are sinful and that abortion should not be permitted in certain circumstances.
Many believed that the church has tried to cover up child abuse by clergy, and that its reputation worldwide had been permanently damaged as a result.
However few of the Catholics surveyed by YouGov wanted Benedict XVI to stand down and a slight majority believed it was right that taxpayers were paying for his historic visit to Britain this week.
The survey, commissioned by ITV Tonight, could help explain why the church has struggled to sell tickets for the open-air Masses led by the Pontiff, and why it still needs to find £4million to cover its costs for the trip.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “Pope Benedict says he wants a smaller, purer church. With so many of his flock out of step with his social teachings, it looks like he’s going to get his wish.
“It is sobering to reflect that the immense political power exerted by the Church at the UN and in Brussels reflects the views of a few elderly men, not even of the Church they purport to represent.”
The pollsters asked 1,636 Catholic adults in Britain for their opinion on key aspects of church teaching, which were long accepted by the faithful but now appear outdated to many in an increasingly liberal and secular culture.
They found that just 11 per cent agreed with the Vatican doctrine that abortion should only be allowed as an indirect consequence of life-saving treatment. Almost half of those questioned (44 per cent) believed that women should also be allowed to terminate pregnancies in cases of rape, incest and a severe disability to the child. A further 30 per cent said abortion should always be allowed, while just 6 per cent said it must never be permitted.
Only 4 per cent of British Catholics agreed that artificial forms of contraception should not be used with 71 per cent believing that condoms should be used more often in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections.
In addition, 11 per cent supported Catholic doctrine that homosexual acts are morally wrong, while 41 per cent said same-sex relationships should be celebrated along with heterosexual ones.
Two-thirds (65 per cent) believed priests should be allowed to marry – twice as many as thought they should remain celibate.
The findings suggest that British Catholics are far more progressive than their spiritual leaders in the Holy See.
However the ITV survey also found that 72 per cent of Catholics wanted Benedict XVI to remain in his post, compared with just 14 per cent who wanted him to stand down.
In total 18 per cent felt the Vatican had been criticised unfairly over the recent clergy abuse scandals, but 65 per cent said the behaviour of paedophile priests had been covered up and the Church had been rightly criticised.
The campaign group Catholic Voices for Reform said: “The results of this survey are little short of astonishing. Our experience in a range of Catholic reform organisations confirms our belief that around 50 per cent of Catholics in the UK broadly support the reform agenda.
“On some issues however this survey suggests that the percentage is much higher, for example the number supporting a married priesthood is well over 60 per cent. The response regarding gay relationships indicates that a high percentage of respondentssupport more tolerance in respect of celebrating such relationships.
“There is no surprise at the response to the question regarding artificial contraception, this is a debate long ago settled in the Catholic lay community and exists only in the minds of those in the Vatican Curia and few others in denial.
“What the survey confirms very strongly is that Catholic Voices for Reform is correct in its claimthat the Church has reached a stage where an open discussion about how the Church can best fulfil its sacred mission in the modern world is the only way forward.”
The Pontiff arrives in Britain on Thursday for a four-day tour, the first-ever state papal visit to the country and only the second since the Reformation.
However just 75,000 passes have been given to Catholics for an open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow – far fewer than the 300,000 who saw the previous Pope, John Paul II, appear there in 1982.
A prayer vigil in Hyde Park, London, on Saturday is believed to be close to capacity but the highlight of the visit, the beatification of Cardinal Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham, may be seen by as few as 50,000 pilgrims – half the number originally planned.
Many churchgoers who had already contributed to a collection for the visit are thought to have baulked at the prospect of paying up to £25 for a ticket to one of the outdoor events, particularly the beatification Mass which can only be reached by coaches leaving parishes before dawn next Sunday followed by “very long” walks to the arena.
Tens of thousands are expected to line the streets instead, to catch a glimpse of Benedict XVI in his Popemobile.
The Church has only raised £6.2m of its estimated £10m costs, while taxpayers face a £12m bill for the state aspects of the visit even before security is included.