Thursday, March 13, 2014

Polling the faithful - Pew vs the USCCB

Two days ago, the National Catholic Reporter published an article stating that laypeople in only just over a third of the nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States were given the opportunity to respond directly to the Vatican's survey in preparation for the upcoming synod on the family. It said it "found 78 dioceses with clear, easily accessible information about what the survey was and how Catholics could participate, either through online surveys, direct consultations...or parish input" and that "of those, about a dozen reported the results of their surveys and consultations publicly."

However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops needs to understand that regardless of whether or not they allow the faithful to complete the Vatican's survey and confirm what we already suspect, we have other sources of information about the position of American Catholics on the most significant issues covered by the survey, and some others besides. It's a pity most of our bishops can't be as open as the Pew Religion and Public Life Project.

Pew surveyed American Catholics last month on the occasion of Pope Francis' one year anniversary and here is what they found. The good news is that Pope Francis' popularity remains high (85% give him a favorable rating, so that honeymoon is definitely not over). The bad news is that, except for being inspired to maybe pray a little harder, Catholics have not changed much due to the new pope. Mass attendance remains the same as a year ago with only 40% attending weekly or more. Participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation continues to decline with 22% of Catholics reporting that they are confessing less often than when Francis assumed the papacy.

Nor has there been any significant change in the acceptance of Church teachings in key areas:

  • Birth Control: 77% of Catholics surveyed think that the Church should allow the use of birth control and 56% think the Church will change on this issue by 2050 (up from 53% in 2013)

  • Married Priests: 72% of those surveyed think the Church should allow priests to get married and 51% think the Church will change on this issue by 2050 (only 39% thought change was possible when Benedict XVI was in office)

  • Women Priests: 68% of Catholics think that the Church should allow women to become priests but only 42% think the Church will change on this issue (slightly more than a year ago when only 37% thought it possible)

  • Same-Sex Marriage: 50% of those surveyed think the Church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples but only 36% think the Church will change on this matter by 2050. If this number seems low, it's because the question is asking about the Catholic Church recognizing these marriages, not about civil same-sex marriage which enjoys much more acceptance among the Catholic faithful. The message we can derive from this is that American Catholics understand their Church's position on same-sex marriage, which the bishops have been hammering away at over the last couple of years while opposing same-sex marriage laws around the country, and so they don't expect the institution to change. However, they don't accept that position and at least half of them would like to see change in this area.

Except on same-sex marriage, the majority of even the most devoted Catholics -- those who attend Mass at least weekly -- want to see their Church change on these issues. Sitting on the surveys, writing some sort of spin rather than listening to and truthfully and openly feeding back what the faithful are thinking on these matters, is not going to change reality. One of the reasons Pope Francis is so beloved is that he hasn't been afraid to ask the tough questions. Why are our American shepherds so afraid to ask the questions...and hear the answers?

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