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Catholics in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico Respect Church but Reject Its Positions on Many Critical Issues, New Survey Reveals

March 9, 2004

First comprehensive three-country polling exposes “a silent revolution” among Catholics who want the church to help the poor but reject its intrusions into politics and bans on contraception and condoms.

SANTIAGO, CHILE—results of the first comprehensive polling of Catholics in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico were released today showing that Catholics in these countries see a humanitarian and spiritual role for their church but support many changes to liberalize it, including sanctioning contraception and some abortion rights, and largely oppose the church taking a heavy role in politics. Entitled Attitudes of Catholics on Reproductive Rights, Church-State, and Related Issues: Three National Surveys in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, the findings were presented by three polling experts and the organizations who sponsored the surveys at a press conference in Santiago, Chile, on the eve of an international government-level meeting to assess progress on women’s reproductive health in Latin America.

Citing the fact Catholics comprise 95% of the population in Bolivia, 90% in Colombia and 89% in Mexico, the experts pointed to the relevance of the survey for policy making in the Latin America region where the Vatican lobbies to restrict reproductive rights. They noted that the Vatican and its allies will also be lobbying world governments gathered for the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean ad hoc Committee on Population and Development on March 10-11, 2004. The meeting marks the tenth anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 countries adopted, by consensus, the Programme of Action.

“These findings expose the reality that not all Catholics in Latin America accept or follow the positions the Vatican advocates in policy making arenas,” stated María Consuelo Mejía, director, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, México and also speaking on behalf of Catholics for A Free Choice based in Washington, DC. “At the Cairo conference and during reviews of the Programme of Action, the Vatican has always claimed to speak for 1 billion Catholics worldwide. The truth is that they do not”.

Luis Alberto Quiroga from Encuestas y Estudios in Bolivia, added, “We see today how millions of Catholics really view the Church and want it to change and allow contraception, condom use, sexuality education and access to abortion in some or all cases. The Vatican can no longer use its false claim of representing all Catholics as it opposes sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

“Catholics in Colombia are very pragmatic and while the church is important to them, they do not want it to tell them how to live,” stated Javier Restrepo, vice president, Napoléon Franco y Cía S.A., the organization that conducted the survey in Colombia. “In asking Colombians about their sexuality, they tell us that they have a lot of practices that diverge from the church’s position. Colombians are aware of contraception and the risk of HIV and about sexuality in young persons, but most Catholics in Colombia are saying: ‘I believe in God but I live on the earth and the church’s ideas are for heaven. We need contraception methods and ways to prevent HIV/AIDS. You have to do what you think is the right thing and it is not necessary to follow the ideas of the church’.”

“We are seeing a silent revolution among Catholics in Mexico,” stated Roberto J. Blancarte, Ph.D., a leading Mexican sociologist of religion and former staff member at the Mexican Office of Foreign Affairs for the Vatican. “This is the first survey on what Catholics really think about sexual and reproductive health and rights and it shows us that there is a big breach between Catholics and the bishops on these issues. Before Catholics were more afraid of what the bishops and the church were saying—now they are deciding for themselves. What we see is a more mature society and a more democratic one in which the most important guide is the individual conscience, not the institution of the church. What we also see is how isolated the bishops are from society and from faithful Catholics.”

Following this perspective, Verónica Díaz Ramos, the director of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir from Valparaíso, Chile, pointed out that these data reflect a tendency that will most probably appear if a similar poll were conducted in Chile. “There is a double standard between what Catholics of our country say they follow publicly, and what they practice in their daily lives. In general Catholics tend to hide their true opinions on matters of contraception, abortion, divorce and sexuality, as much in social groups as when they are with a priest”. At the same time she affirmed, “this double standard also is true for the clergy, who make a distinction between what they support publicly versus what they say privately”.

Catholics for a Free Choice and its partner organizations Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir jointly commissioned the three companion surveys in Mexico, Bolivia and Colombia in the latter half of 2003. The Population Council cosponsored the Mexican component, collaborated on the design, and oversaw the implementation of the project. Belden Russonello & Stewart advised on the development of similar questionnaires for the three countries and the design of the methods in each to enable comparisons. The polling was conducted in 2003 by three research firms: Estadística Aplicada interviewed 2,328 Catholics in Mexico; Encuestas y Estudios interviewed 1,500 Catholics in Bolivia; and Napoléon Franco y Cía S.A. interviewed 1,523 Catholics in Colombia. Belden Russonello & Stewart, a research and communications firm, advised on the design of questionnaires and methods of comparisons.
Key Findings among Catholics in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico


  • Catholics want a church that is attentive to the world around it, particularly addressing the needs of the poor, promoting human rights and providing moral guidance.
  • Protecting human rights generally and denouncing domestic violence are areas that garner great support for church emphasis.


  • Catholics oppose direct intervention in politics by the church and strongly oppose using the pulpit to promote or disqualify candidates.
  • The great majority says their presidents and legislators should govern on the basis of a diversity of opinions among their constituents—rather than on the basis of the teachings of the Catholic church.
  • On a personal level they see little role for church opinions on politics: less than one in ten would consult a priest directly about voting decisions.

Schools, religion and sexuality education

  • They tend to view a close relationship between the Catholic church and public education positively, supporting government financing for parochial schools and teaching Catholicism in public schools.
  • Mexican Catholics are divided on the first issue and opposed to the second.
  • The support many of the Latin Americans give for Catholic integration into public schools does not prevent them from advocating the teaching of sexuality education is schools, including all contraceptive methods.

Contraceptive choice

  • Use by Catholics of contraceptive methods such as pills, injectables, IUDs and condoms is far more prevalent than methods approved by the church, such as periodic abstinence.
  • Most support and want to have the freedom to use artificial contraception, and believe that public health facilities should provide contraception free of charge.
  • They go so far as to say that adolescents should have access to a full range of contraceptive methods including those opposed by the church. And they do not believe that using contraception prevents one from being a “good” Catholic.

Condoms and AIDS

  • Catholics say the government should fight the spread of HIV/AIDS with condoms.
  • They prefer the church allow Catholics to use condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS.


  • A majority of Catholics in all three countries believe abortion should be permitted in some or all cases. Support for abortion rights is strongest in Mexico and weakest in Colombia.
  • The circumstances in which abortion is most likely to be seen as acceptable involve life- or health-threatening situations.
  • Pregnancy resulting from rape is another instance in which most are willing to condone an abortion. However, economic rationales, contraceptive failure and an inability to deal with a child are not seen as acceptable rationales for obtaining an abortion.
  • They believe first and foremost that a couple together or a woman herself should make the decision to have an abortion. Only very small numbers would have husbands, doctors or the Catholic church making this decision.
  • Catholics are divided on whether one can have an abortion or support someone who does and continue to be a “good” Catholic. Most say expulsion from the church for having an abortion is too harsh.

Obligations of health institutions

  • Large majorities in all three countries believe public hospitals should attend to women who have health problems stemming from abortions, although they do not believe public health facilities should be obligated to provide abortion free upon request.
  • They do say that public hospitals and clinics should offer emergency contraception to women who have had unprotected intercourse or were raped.

Click here to view a PDF of “Attitudes of Catholics on Reproductive Rights, Church-State and Related Issues: Three National Survey in Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico” [PDF].

—Statement ends—