RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the past, many Catholics believed that the Pope spoke with the voice of God and they were reluctant to question him. Today the opinions of U.S. Catholics often diverge from the pontiff and church teachings. With his outspoken views, Pope Francis has given his followers even more to consider. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on how American Catholics are now starting to ask more questions.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In the 1950s, 3 out of 4 American Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. William D'Antonio, a Catholic sociologist who was a young father in those days, says he knows why Catholics were so dutiful back then.
D'ANTONIO: We went to church because of the fear of hell if we didn't go. You either went to church or you were going to hell.
GJELTEN: Not going to church was a mortal sin, and Catholics back then were taught by their priests that mortal sins sent them to hell unless they confessed and were forgiven. They were also taught it was a sin to use birth control. That came from a 1930 encyclical, a statement of doctrine, issued by Pope Pius XI. Sometimes when popes speak, they're considered to be infallible - they can't be wrong. But D'Antonio, now a research professor at Catholic University, says the papal infallibility rule did not apply to that 1930 encyclical.
D'ANTONIO: Catholics thought it did, but in fact, on an issue like that involving human behavior, it cannot be a teaching from authority, from the infallible authority.
GJELTEN: Official Catholic doctrine holds that a pope's judgment is considered infallible only in rare circumstances. For example, on core issues of faith. So why did so many Catholics think that what the pope or their bishop said was unquestionable?
Mary Gautier is a prominent Catholic scholar at Georgetown University. She says it had to do with with where people came from.
MARY GAUTIER: American Catholics were basically uneducated, blue-collar workers coming from a peasant population over in Europe and so they clung to the teachings of the church, whatever the priests said or the bishops said, as authoritative because those were the only educated people that they knew.
GJELTEN: Many Protestant Americans in those years thought their Catholic neighbors were beholden to their church leaders, so much so that when John Kennedy ran for president, he had to reassure them that he'd make his own decisions.
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JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act.
GJELTEN: Times have changed, though some Catholics still defer to their priests and bishops.
JOAN LOWERY: I'm still the old-fashioned Catholic. I'm pretty much true to what I've been taught.
GJELTEN: Joan Lowery (ph) worships at a parish in Philadelphia. She's 84, and she realizes many younger Catholics have a different attitude.
LOWERY: A lot of the Catholics have changed and want to do what they want and say what they want and so on, and they're not true to the old traditions.
GJELTEN: Maria Cristina Perez (ph), a 43-year-old schoolteacher in suburban Philadelphia, almost left the church because of its positions on human sexuality issues. Pope Francis has now brought her back.
MARIA CRISTINA PEREZ: Certain disconnects that always troubled me deeply about the church feel more resolved, and I am much more comfortable now celebrating Catholicism and celebrating the church.
GJELTEN: Not because Francis changed church positions she found objectionable. It's because she likes other things he says.
PEREZ: My close friends who aren't Catholic have said to me, boy, you sure are good at compartmentalizing. And I say, you're right - I am choosing to celebrate his focus on poverty. I am choosing not to focus on the other things.
GJELTEN: That tendency to pick and choose among church teachings is replacing the inclination to regard church doctrine as infallible. Mary Gautier, from Georgetown University, says two things have happened in the last 50 or 60 years - American Catholics today are far more educated, and church leaders are now saying Catholics are allowed to come to their own conclusions.
GAUTIER: The church teaches that you should pay attention to the Bible, to the teachings of the magisterium, which includes the Pope and all of the bishops, but you should form your own conscience around that.
GJELTEN: This is, after all, a pope who said of gay people seeking spiritual guidance, who am I to judge? Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.