More than half of Catholics in the UK aged under 50 now say “same-sex marriage is right” – according to research by YouGov.

As the Vatican surveys the opinions of Catholics in dioceses and parishes around the world, three large polls carried out this year by YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates reveal a profile of British Catholics adrift from Vatican-style Catholicism, and significant disparities between older and younger believers.

Only 36% of Catholics surveyed say that they view the Catholic Church as a positive force in society. When those who take a negative view of the Church are asked their reasons, the most popular answers are that it discriminates against women and gay people, because of the child abuse scandals, because it is hypocritical, and because it is too morally conservative.

The Catholic Church teaches that sex should only take place within the context of a married, heterosexual relationship which remains open to having children (no artificial contraception). However, whilst Catholics remain positive about the institution of the family, their views about what constitutes a family now diverge enormously from the Church’s official teaching.

Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children. Almost 90% agree that an unmarried couple with children is a family, and two-thirds say that a same-sex couple with children is a family.

The surveys also find that Catholics as a whole are now in favour of allowing same-sex marriage by a small margin (3%). Younger people are more distanced from the Church’s teaching: over half of Catholics under 50 now say “same-sex marriage is right.”

Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and director of the Westminster Faith Debates, said: “What these findings show is a widening gulf between what the Vatican thinks a Catholic should be, and what Catholics in Great Britain really are. The gap is widest over issues of sex and personal morality and it has been widening down the generations. There is now a major divide in British Catholicism between a minority who obey their leaders and a majority who do not.

“This is not a dispute between faithful Catholics and unfaithful ones, but between two groups who read the same scriptures, honour the same tradition, and pray to the same God but come to different conclusions. The current survey of Catholics issued by Rome may be a tacit acknowledgment that a chasm has opened up between Church and people, but it is hard to see how the problem can be solved by a survey which will not be able to measure opinion accurately, and a Church which says that its teaching on sex and the body is ‘irreformable’.”