A study of US Catholics says they are more supportive of gay rights than the general public and other Christians.

The Public Religion Research Institute study found that almost half (43 per cent) of Catholics support gay marriage and 56 per cent say gay relationships are not sinful.

This compares to 37 per cent of the general public who support gay marriage and 46 per cent who say gay relationships are not sinful.

When Catholics were asked if they agreed with ‘civil marriage’ for gay couples, support levels rose to 71 per cent.

Seven in ten said that religious messages contribute a lot (33 per cent) or a little (37 per cent) to suicides among LGBT young people.

Seventy-three per cent said they supported protection against employment discrimination, 63 per cent said gays and lesbians should be able to serve in the military and 60 per cent said they should be allowed to adopt children. The general public were less likely to support each of these rights issues.

Only 23 per cent of Catholics said sexual orientation could be changed and they were significantly more likely to give their church poor marks for its handling of gay issues compared to other faiths.

Robert P Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, said: “It may come as a surprise to many that rank and file Catholics are more supportive of rights for gays and lesbians than other Christians and the public.

“But the best data available paints this consistent portrait across a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, workplace non-discrimination, open military service, and adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples.”

The research was compiled from surveys in 2010. It compared the views of the general population, Catholics and other Christian denominations.

This week, a Vatican official told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that Catholics were being “vilified” for their views against homosexuality.

“People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behavior between people of the same sex,” said Archbishop Silvano M Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the council.

He added: “When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature, which may also be expressions of religious convictions, or state opinions about scientific claims, they are stigmatised, and worse — they are vilified, and prosecuted.”