Pope Francis’ evolving views on a host of fraught social issues have surprised observers since his rise to the Vatican two-and-a-half years ago. Now an unprecedented bit of research shows that USA Catholics’ views may be just as surprising.

A trove of data out Wednesday from the Pew Research Center finds that the typical American Catholic doesn’t find it sinful to use contraception or to live with a romantic partner outside of marriage. While nearly half of Catholics believe the church should not recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, just as many think it should.

The findings come as Pope Francis this week waded into one of the thorniest topics of his papacy: abortion.

On Tuesday, he said priests can forgive the “sin of abortion” for women who are sorry about it. In a letter published by the Vatican, the pontiff — who has been striving to build a more inclusive church — said priests will have the power during a special “Holy Year of Mercy” that begins in December.

The new Pew survey of 5,122 adults found that while most Catholics — 57% — believe it’s “sinful” to terminate a pregnancy, opposing abortion ranks relatively low among a list of 10 beliefs when it comes to defining what’s “essential” to being a Catholic. Only about one in three respondents said opposing abortion was essential to being a Catholic. By contrast, about two-thirds said “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was essential.

“I think it just says something about how salient this issue is to Catholics overall,” said Jessica Martinez, a Pew senior researcher. “When they think about living out their faith day to day, it doesn’t seem like opposing abortion is high on the list for most Catholics.”

Like much of the survey, the questions asking Catholics to rank essential beliefs are unprecedented for Pew, Martinez said, so they don’t have comparable data from previous years.

In his brief tenure, which began in the spring of 2013, Pope Francis has laid out sometimes controversial stances on a host of social issues, including divorce, gay marriage and contraception.

Francis hasn’t budged much from the church’s view that artificial contraception is a sin — in remarks he later walked back, Francis said Catholics need not reproduce “like rabbits.” Days later, he praised big families for “welcoming children as a true gift of God.”

The Pew survey found that 66% of Catholics believe it’s not sinful to use contraception — actually, that’s several percentage points higher than the general public’s view. Overall, 63% of Americans believe it’s not sinful to use contraception.

Asked by Pew if they believe the church will “definitely” or “probably” allow contraception by 2050, 59% of Catholics agreed. And three-fourths believe the church should allow it.

Just months after being named pontiff, Francis struck a tolerant tone on gay marriage, saying, “Who am I to judge?” when asked whether gays and lesbians could be good Christians. “They shouldn’t be marginalized,” he said. “The tendency (to be homosexual) is not the problem. They are our brothers.”

The Pew survey found that Catholics are evenly split, at 46% apiece, on whether the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. Another 8% are undecided.

On divorce, the Pope issued a call last month for the church to embrace divorced and remarried Catholics. He said such couples “are not excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way.” Francis told a Vatican crowd, “They always belong to the church.”

The Pew survey actually revealed that, given the choice between a divorced or same-sex couple raising children, more Catholics believe that the same-sex arrangement is “acceptable and as good as any other arrangement.”

Even as the findings suggest that many USA Catholics are at odds with traditional church teachings on social issues, Martinez noted, seven in 10 say they couldn’t imagine quitting Catholicism.

“They’re still very much attached to their church,” she said.

Contributing: Katharine Lackey, John Bacon, USA TODAY