Most U.S. Catholics Support Choice of Pope

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

An overwhelming majority of American Catholics approve of the selection of Pope Benedict XVI and predict that he will defend the traditional policies and beliefs of a church that many members say is out of touch with their views, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey found that more than eight in 10 Roman Catholics broadly supported the selection of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to replace Pope John Paul II.

Nearly as many, 73 percent, said they were "enthusiastic" about the new pontiff, though only one in four said they were strongly enthusiastic about the choice.

Those Catholics in favor of modernizing the church were less enthusiastic than traditionalists about the new pontiff, but a majority still gave Benedict their support.

The poll suggested the magnitude of the challenge facing the newly installed pontiff in the United States as he attempts to lead Catholics deeply split between those who want the church to maintain its traditional practices, such as retaining an all-male, celibate priesthood, and those who say the church needs to change to reflect the way they live today and allow contraception and the ordination of women.

Half say they want the church to adhere to tradition, while almost exactly the same proportion believe the church must change its policies to reflect modern lifestyles and beliefs. The percentage supporting traditionalism rose nine percentage points over the past month in the wake of Benedict's selection as the church's new leader.

Those Catholics who reported the most regular church attendance were significantly more supportive of maintaining church traditions (58 percent favored) than those who attended less frequently (43 percent). The poll suggests there is also a gender gap. Nearly six in 10 men favored a continuation of current policies, whereas a similarly sized majority of women said they would like to see the church do more to reflect today's lifestyles.

The poll found somewhat greater consensus among Catholics over whether the church is in step with their views. Slightly more than half, 52 percent, believe the Catholic Church is out of touch with American Catholics, while 44 percent disagree.

But Catholics on both sides of these divides agree that Benedict, who before his election led the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades, likely will chart a conservative course in the years ahead: Eight in 10 expect him to maintain traditional church policies whereas only 14 percent believe he will change policies and modernize the church, a course that could further widen the gap between the church in Rome and American Catholics.

American Catholics say the new pope's top priority should be to deal with sexual abuse by priests, followed closely by the need to encourage human rights. These priorities were shared by a majority of more active and less active Catholics.

Four in 10 also said the pontiff should follow in his predecessor's footsteps by paying special attention to the needs of younger churchgoers. Only three in 10 said Benedict's highest priority should be making it attractive for men to serve as priests.

Responding to the specific concerns of women in the church ranked lowest among the seven priorities listed, even among female Catholics.

Seven in 10 opposed denying communion to politicians who support legal abortion, a move urged by several bishops and an issue that briefly surfaced in last year's election campaign.

Slightly more than half, 53 percent, said they would want their son to become a priest whereas 41 percent disagreed. This proportion rose to two in three among those who attend Mass weekly.

A total of 284 self-described Catholics were interviewed April 21 to 24 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the results is plus or minus six percentage points.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company