Poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics favor change

March 11, 2013

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, the poll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

The seemingly contradictory results reflect a schism between regular churchgoers and those who attend church less frequently. Catholics who go nearly weekly are more likely to say they want the new pope to maintain traditions. Those who go less frequently are more apt to favor change.

“Catholics aren’t a monolithic bloc,” said Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University in Northeast Washington. “There are big differences between Latino and white Catholics in the United States, and between Catholics who attend church weekly and those who attend less than once a month.”


New pope, old challenges

The new poll shows a greater yearning for change than when Benedict became pope in 2005. At about the time he was selected, fully half of American Catholics wanted the church to stick with its traditional policies; now, 38 percent say so.

“I’m looking for someone who will be open to the changes in the world,” said Kathleen Pierce, a health-care worker from San Diego. Pierce, a Catholic who attends church regularly, said: “The idea of women in the priesthood, I hope that happens, though I don’t think it will happen now. But having married clergy is a real possibility. Let’s move forward.”

But a semi-retired lawyer from Florida said he expects the pope, and the church he leads, to be a counterbalance to societal changes that have eroded marriage.

“I’m looking for some kind of traditional views on the value of marriage,” said the lawyer, who participated in the poll but did not want his name published. “I don’t want to see it break down any more.”

The Post-ABC poll finds 55 percent of Catholics opposing the ban on married priests, while 58 percent oppose the prohibition on female priests. About a third say they want to keep the priesthood male and unmarried.

The poll was conducted March 7 to 10, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; it is plus or minus eight points for the sample of 201 Catholic respondents.

Several Catholics who participated in the poll mentioned without prompting the scandals involving sexual abuse of children by priests. There is overwhelming disapproval among Catholics and Americans in general over the church’s handling of the revelations.

Eight in 10 of all Americans polled disapprove of the church’s actions, with most disapproving “strongly.” That is the highest level on record in Post polls. Catholics are hardly more forgiving, with 78 percent disapproving of the church’s response.

Some said they hope the next pope will take full advantage of the media age.

“I’d like to see him on the news more,” said Lou Quiles, 47, a manager in a Fort Worth investment firm. “The last pope, Benedict, how often did you see the guy? Let’s hear their views, their concerns more.”

Even some Catholics who say they would like the church to modernize its policies say it still has a potentially significant role to play in the world at large.

“Certainly, John Paul, Reagan and Thatcher helped bring down communism,” said Anne New­begin, 67, a homemaker from Portland, Ore. “He represented a moral standard. He was conservative, but he embraced people, he inspired them, he very much related to people.”

Craighill is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight polling director Jon Cohen and survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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