Pew Report: U.S. Catholics Divided On Church’s Direction Under New Pope

This just in from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

Washington, D.C.– As the pontificate of Benedict XVI winds down, many American Catholics express a desire for change, according to a new survey report by the Pew Research Center. For example, most Catholics say it would be good if the next pope allows priests to marry. And fully six-in-ten Catholics say it would be good if the next pope hails from a developing region like South America, Asia or Africa.

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At the same time, many Catholics also express appreciation for the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. While about half of U.S. Catholics (46%) say the next pope should “move the church in new directions,” the other half (51%) say the new pope should “maintain the traditional positions of the church.” And among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63%) want the next pope to maintain the church’s traditional positions.

These are among the key findings of a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life based on two national surveys conducted Feb. 13-18 among 1,504 adults (including 304 Catholics) and Feb. 14-17 among 1,003 adults (including 212 Catholics). The report also finds that nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics have heard a lot (60%) or at least a little (30%) about Benedict’s resignation. Just one-in-ten Catholics say they have heard nothing at all about his resignation.

Additional findings include:

  • Favorability ratings of the pope. Three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (74%) express a favorable view of the pope. Benedict’s ratings among Catholics now stand about where they were in March 2008 (just before his U.S. visit) and are lower than they were in April 2008, when 83% of U.S. Catholics expressed favorable views of him. Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was rated favorably by upwards of 90% of U.S. Catholics in three separate Pew Research polls in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal. U.S. Catholics voice dissatisfaction with Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal in the church. Among Catholics who say they followed news of the pontiff’s resignation, nearly two-thirds (63%) think he has done a poor or “only fair” job of addressing the sex abuse scandal, while 33% give him excellent or good ratings for his handling of the issue. U.S. Catholics are more negative in their views on this question now than in 2008; immediately following the pope’s 2008 visit to the U.S., 49% gave Benedict good or excellent ratings for his handling of this issue.
  • Benedict’s handling of interfaith relations. Benedict gets better marks for his handling of interfaith relations; 55% of U.S. Catholics say he has done a good or excellent job promoting relations with other religions, while 37% say he has done a poor or “only fair” job in this area. Catholics are also more negative in their views on this question now than in 2008, when 70% said he was doing a good or excellent job promoting interfaith relations.
  • Maintain traditional positions or move in new directions? Among U.S. Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63%) say the new pope should maintain the traditional positions of the church, while about one-third (35%) say the new pope should move the church in new directions. By contrast, among those who attend Mass less often, 54% say the next pope should move in new directions while 42% prefer to maintain the church’s traditional positions.
  • New directions Catholics would like to see the church go. In response to an open-ended question, about one-in-five U.S. Catholics who think the next pope should move the church in new directions say simply that the church should become more modern (19%). And 15% want the next pope to do more to end sex abuse in the church and punish the priests involved. In addition, upwards of one-in-five mention issues regarding the priesthood, including 14% who say priests should be allowed to marry and 9% who say women should be allowed to serve in the priesthood. Others mention a desire to see the church become more accepting and open in general (14%), and an additional 9% say they want to see the church become more accepting of homosexuality and gay marriage in particular. Of Catholics who want a pope who will move the church in new directions, 7% specifically mention birth control, mainly indicating a desire for a lessening of the church’s opposition to the use of contraception.

The full report is available on the Pew Forum’s website. For additional information on related topics, see Pew's Resources on Catholicism and the Pope.

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Tim O'Leary
4 years 9 months ago
This is a pretty weak survey as only 304 self-identified as Catholic in response to the question: "what is your present religion". Of these, 50% seldom or never go to Mass, so they would be non-practicing (? Cultural Catholics). So, it would seem that only 152 might even be seen as practicing Catholics (and that might include the likes of Gary Wills, who says the Eucharist is a fake! - another story on this blog). Yet, only 140 answered yes to the question: "Move the Church in new directions?" Pew doesn't break it out in their full report at their site, but all the non-practicing Catholics could make up this group. So, this is hardly a poll of committed Catholics. Given the number of non-practicing Catholics in the survey, it is surprising that only 9-18% wanted a change in gender theology (women priests, homosexuals). Again, since people could have mentioned more than one item, it could be the same 9% (or 13 people). What is remarkable is that only 7% raised the issue of changing the teaching on contraception (10 people)!
Paolo Scott
4 years 5 months ago
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Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
There you go again Tim. You keep attacking the survey--are you a social scientist with polling expertise? I ask because you always complain about the sample size but, when questioned, never provide evidence that it is deficient. As for your harping about Mass attendance rates, there are lots of Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly and are not "lapsed Catholics." I know home-bound seniors, people who go during the week but, because of work schedules, can only make Sunday Mass a couple of times a month, etc. You are very intent on only considering people Catholic only if they attend each week (and then, what? Don't count people who attend a Paulist or Jesuit parish?!). Our parish ranks thinned a few years ago when a young conservative priest alienated heaps of parishioners. Several of these folks now attend Mass only on occasion but send their children to Catholic school, visit other parishes when they are able, participate in our local Catholic Worker House etc. Is it our job to label them ex-Catholics? They don't see themselves that way. Even if you look to those who attend weekly 35% want the Church to move in new directions. That seems like a lot of dissatisfaction in the pews. As for the concerns Catholic list everyone should have a look: of the twenty or so items only one (!) would please the conservative Catholic and that is the 1% who mentioned that the Church should become more conservative. The other items on the list? Allowing priests to marry, gender equality, getting tough on abusers, more focus on social justice, etc.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 9 months ago
Vince - I thought you fancied yourself as a social scientist, so I would have expected you would have read the actual Pew pdf before going off like you do ("there you go again") - every time! I also thought you knew a bit more about the limits of small sample sizes, not only for the overall sample but even more so for the subsets. The full report says the sampling error rate for the 304 Catholics was +/- 6.5% and for the weekly attendence was +/- 9.8%. For the even smaller subsets, one is told they are "available upon request." (Another tidbit I didn't mention previously is that on calls to homes, they didn't interview the person who answered the phone but asked for the youngest adult in the household - a surprising strategy they do not explain). The 50% I called practicing Catholics included not only those who attended weekly or more frequently, but also those who attended monthly. The non-practicing Catholics were the 50% who attend only a few times a year, or who said "seldom" or "never" (the small subset who would attend mass but were unable to were not reported in the survey). According to the numbers, 51% wanted the Church to maintain its doctrine. Also, the list of new things people want were from a smaller subset than those who do not practice. One may as well ask a group of Protestants what changes they would like to see in the Catholic Church.
Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
I did read it Tim--but I'm not an expert on polling and I'm sorry if I made this claim (although I can't find any evidence that I did). I was wondering if you were because you are constantly amazed at the small number of people polled. I know enough about polling that the Pew samples are completely in line with accepted polling practice (we discussed this before) A couple of points: 1. "[O]n calls to homes, they didn't interview the person who answered the phone but asked for the youngest adult in the household - a surprising strategy they do not explain). " But they do discuss this: if you followed their link to their methodology page (http://www.people-press.org/methodology/) you could read about "oversampling." 2. "[T]he small subset who would attend mass but were unable to were not reported in the survey." Is this your claim or Pew's? I couldn't find this assertion in the report. My sense--I do not have data--is that there are many in this category (Google "Catholic shut ins" and you will find plenty of Catholic groups clamoring for more services to this under-served group). 3. You may group Catholics into the "attend weekly & monthly" and all others but the Pew folks did not in presenting their results. They divided it into "attend weekly (or more frequently)" and "attend less often" which includes at least once a month. On a second look I would complain that those who attend more than once a week (17% of the sample) are over weighed in the sample. I mean, c'mon, are nearly 1 in 5 Catholics at Mass during the week? I go to Mass several times a year and there might be a dozen people in the pews. In all, I'm not surprised that disaffected Catholics find more cause for concern with the Church. It's the 35% who still attend weekly or more and are calling for change that most impresses me.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 9 months ago
Vince - most opinion polls report a +/- 3% confidence interval which typically requires around 1000 people. This has 304 so it is considerably less reliable. Subgroups are even more unreliable indicators of the population they are claiming to represent. Then there are difficulties with selecting respondents (e.g. including someone who never goes to mass as a Catholic, as they did here). But, despite the limitations in the math and methodology of many polls, a much greater limitation is in the assumptions behind the questions, which often have less obvious prejudices. The breakdown in monthly mass attendance is on page 12. More than weekly could mean holy days, lent and other occasions. But the low number of those polled for this exercise makes all answers unreliable (I cannot find the 35% you are excited about), even the only 7% who mention contraception as an issue.
Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
When you state "less reliable" you are confusing it with "less valid." The range of margin of error can run much higher than the one in this poll--the two most important aspects are that the polling firm provide an accurate "margin of error" and that the findings still "make sense" in terms of the conclusions. Of course the findings are still relevant: you just have to deal with the somewhat higher margin. Not remarkable. Pew is a top-notch data gathering & polling outfit. If you have links to articles that challenge--with scholarly data--Pew's reputation please pass them on. Your wrote about "a much greater limitation is in the assumptions behind the questions, which often have less obvious prejudices. " I have no idea what you mean by this. "More than weekly could mean holy days, lent and other occasions." Perhaps--but then I know people to go to Mass about every month but then given the choice between "once or twice a month" and "a few times a year" could mean different things to different people. I know plenty of people who go for the big holidays, family events, and then about once a month. They may not fit into either category. The 35% to which I refer is in the first paragraph on page 4. This gets us back to your original point and the one I'll with which I'll end--i.e., who should be counted as Catholic. I would argue that it should be those who report themselves as Catholic. Given the shocking state of the Church today there are many, many reasons to run screaming from this identity. It's not up to you to gather your particular brand of Catholics & shut the door on all others. If the data is uncomfortable for us to read the problem isn't most likely with the data.
Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
"I go to Mass several times a year and there might be a dozen people in the pews." I meant that, in addition to Sunday Mass each week, I have the opportunity to attend several times a year during the week. . ."
Tim O'Leary
4 years 9 months ago
Oy vey, Vince. Reliable vs. valid? Really? And you judge the accuracy of a poll if the results “make sense” to your a priori prejudices? You seem to have forgotten the purpose of polls, and it appears you are frequently misled by their findings. Since you asked, see this article from ABC News (http://abcnews.go.com/PollingUnit/sampling-error-means/story?id=5984818), which I didn’t see previously but which recounts most of the same limitations I mentioned above on sample size (the typical 1000 adults used by ABC), subsets, design faults, etc. It first defines the only legitimate purpose of an opinion poll “a calculation of how closely the results reflect the attitudes or characteristics of the full population that's been sampled. Since sampling error can be quantified, it's frequently reported along with survey results to underscore that those results are an estimate only.” This article also states that “Sampling error, however, is oversimplified when presented as a single number in reports that may include subgroups” and that “sampling error in and of itself is not a full measure of a survey's accuracy.” As regards the results of this particular Pew poll, I would have been very happy with the results (only 7-9% complaining about Church teaching on contraception or homosexuality). So, my problem with this particular undersized poll is not with the conclusions, but with the unreliability of this subset to truly reflect the views of the US Catholic population. The much more serious problem with polls of Catholics in general is how Catholics get defined by the pollsters. Defining a Catholic is much harder than defining a voter, and self-identification is unreliable, as evidenced by the sizable number of self-identified “Catholics” who do not believe in God, the Church, the Eucharist or other fundamentally heretical beliefs (are they confused or lying?). There are many Protestant Christians who are more “Catholic” than that! And how Catholics are defined has a much greater impact on the results of a poll than sampling error. I will continue to point out this systematic problem when it is obvious in a poll.
Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
You really, really need to take a course on social statistics. The ABC story does absolutely nothing to discredit the Pew poll. As I wrote: if you can provide me with one--and single-scholarly critique of the Pew methodology then you might be making sense. As for "evidenced by the sizable number of self-identified “Catholics” who do not believe in God, the Church, the Eucharist or other fundamentally heretical beliefs" don't forget all the conservative Catholics that have a completely flawed understanding of infallibility and a host of other misconceptions--let's toss them out of polling consideration. While I'm at it, good luck weeding out Americans who are asked about the Constitution (especially the Bill of Rights) and fail miserably. They aren't "real" Americans and, henceforth, should not appear in polls! Over to you for your customary last word. . .
Tim O'Leary
4 years 9 months ago
Vince - You always say you are leaving but you then come back. In any case, let me know the course you took on social statistics and I will be sure to avoid that one. It obviously failed to teach you about sample size. I do not suppose that Canon Law is accepted in the Church of Vince, but it actually has outlined some ways one can take oneself out (known as latae sententiae or automatic excommunication): an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic; a person who throws away the consecrated Eucharistic species or takes and retains them for a sacrilegious purpose; a person who uses physical force against the Pope; a priest who uses confession as a pretext to solicit the penitent to break the commandment against adultery; a bishop who ordains someone a bishop without a papal mandate, and the person who receives the ordination from him; a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal of confession; a person who procures a completed abortion; accomplices without whose assistance a violation of a law prescribing latae sententiae excommunication would not have been committed. No pollster could pick this up.
Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago
Then it's settled--there are heretics out there so no more polling of Catholics in case one sneaks in with their opinion. Ditto for polling Americans since some may be treasonous.

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