The hardline stances of many conservative Catholic bishops in the U.S. are not shared by a majority of lay Catholics. Most of them say abortion should be legal, favor greater inclusion of LGBT people and oppose the denial of Communion for politicians who support abortion rights, according to a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The poll, conducted in mid-May, shows a clear gap between the prevalent views of American Catholics, and some recent high-profile actions taken by the church’s leaders. For example, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called on Catholics nationwide to pray for the U.S. Supreme Court to end the constitutional right to abortion by reversing its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. According to the new poll, 63 percent of Catholic adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 68 percent say Roe should be left as is.

On May 20, the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, announced that he will no longer allow U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to receive Communion because of her support for abortion rights.

According to the poll, only 31 percent of lay Catholics agree that politicians supporting abortion rights should be denied Communion, while 66 percent say they should be allowed access to the sacrament.

An even larger majority — 77 percent — said that Catholics who identify as LGBT should be allowed to receive Communion. That contrasts sharply with a policy issued by the Diocese of Marquette, which encompasses Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, saying pastors should deny Communion to transgender, gay and nonbinary Catholics “unless the person has repented.”

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said the rift between rank-and-file Catholics and the bishops “reveals a breakdown in communication and trust — shepherds who are far removed from the sheep.”

“This is a precarious time for the U.S. Catholic church,” she added in an email. “U.S. Catholics are, on the whole, accustomed to living and working in a pluralistic society and this poll reinforces the notion that they want the public square to remain pluralistic, free from coercion, and oriented toward care for the vulnerable populations among us.”

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said the poll results didn’t surprise him, and underscored a need for anti-abortion clergy and activists to redouble efforts to change people’s positions.

“For us working on pro-life issues, these kinds of polls are like a summons,” he said. “You’ve got to be doing your work — maybe you’ve got to do it better.”

As for conservative bishops, “their awareness of the gaps that the polling reveals is precisely one of the reasons they feel the need to speak up,″ Pavone said. “They are striving to exercise the role outlined for them in Scripture, namely, to patiently and persistently teach the faith, whether convenient or inconvenient, to clear up confusion.”

Beyond the bishops/laity rift, the poll highlighted other challenges facing the church, which is the largest denomination in the U.S. For example, 68 percent of Catholics reported attending religious services once a month or less. Compared to five years ago, 37 percent said they were now attending less often; 14 percent said they were attending more often.

The poll was conducted just after the leak of a draft Supreme Court majority opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade. The views of U.S. Catholics, as expressed in the poll, were in line with the overall American public, both in regard to supporting abortion’s legality and preserving Roe.

The AP-NORC poll of 1,172 adults, including 358 Catholics, was conducted using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population.

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