Most Catholics do not accept Church doctrine on contraception, divorce and remarriage or cohabitation, a new study shows.
The report by A Call to Action, a group of lay and ordained Catholics committed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, describes a widening gap between the teaching of the Catholic authorities on sexual and family ethics and the opinion and practice of many of the faithful.
A survey of 342 lay and ordained Catholics by ACTA illustrates the scale of the challenge facing the Church, the report says.
The group called for a "kinder, more open Church and an end to rule-book driven policies on the family and sex."
The study, given to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales as part of the Church's preparations for the Synod on the Family in Rome in October, found strong support for lifelong marriage. But most respondents do not accept the Church's rules on contraception, divorce and remarriage, or cohabiting. They called for a more welcoming, family-friendly Church, less clerical and more open to lay involvement.
In the study, 85 per cent of respondents rejected the Church's ban on contraception. They saw it as a major obstacle that has caused a great deal of hurt and anger.
Even more, 88 per cent, rejected the Church's policy of refusing access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried.
A smaller majority of 55 per cent of disagreed with the Church's doctrine that same-sex marriage should be opposed. And 84 per cent agreed with the statement: "Love is love, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. We could learn a lot from homosexual couples."
An overwhelming number, 94 per cent, agreed that the Church needed to be more welcoming to those in irregular relationships such as single parents, the divorced and remarried, and same-sex couples. And 93 per cent said the Church should be more tolerant of couples who cohabit before marriage.
Sermons about family life were singled out by respondents as not being very helpful.
While ACTA admits the survey of 342 Catholics is a small sample, and the respondents were mainly white and older Catholics, the group said their views are informed and valuable.
Each respondent was committed enough to spend at least an hour completing the detailed questionnaire and ten per cent were priests or religious.
ACTA said the findings were also consistent with other survey results such as a 2013 YouGov survey, conducted by Lancaster University, which used a larger random sample.
Lead author, Andrew Hornsby-Smith, a member of ACTA's leadership team, said: "These issues are strangling the future of the Church at a time when the clergy is ageing and numbers are falling. There are some real opportunities, but the church leadership needs to modernise its policies, become more family friendly, and encourage lay involvement."