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recent polls tell us a lot about catholics.  Or do they?

Last January, the National Catholic Reporter published a brief story under the headline "Pollster Links Plunge in Confidence in Religion to Catholic Scandal." The article noted a widely cited Gallup survey that showed a 30-point drop in an index of American religious attitudes and practices. It quoted well-known pollster George Gallup, Jr., stating that the plummet reflected "the 2002 Catholic sexual abuse scandals and the decline in positive attitudes of Catholics toward their Church and clergy."

Since the scandals began rocking the Catholic Church, the media have reported on opinion surveys pointing variously to the laity's diminished confidence in ecclesial authority and to departures of Catholics from the Church. When another Gallup survey released just before Christmas reported declines in Catholic charitable contributions and lower church attendance, for instance, newspapers from Los Angeles to Atlanta picked up on the themes, interviewing parishioners and priests in their communities to confirm the survey's conclusions.

However, a close look at polls purporting to show Catholic opinion often reveals data that is unreliable, and interpretations that are more speculative and sensationalized than scientific. With the difficult task of Church institutional reform ahead, it is time to start sorting out what we really know about relations between Catholic laypeople and their Church.

Consider the story in the National Catholic Reporter. Reading below the headline, one learns that the 30-point drop actually occurred in the context of a 1,000-point scale; it's not a 30 percent drop as one might have assumed, but instead a 4.5 percent drop from an average of 671 points to an average of 641 points, in surveys taken throughout 2001 and 2002. One also learns that the drop is observed among all Americans, meaning that the entire country has experienced a decline in religiosity, not only Catholics. Finally, in a table accompanying the story, it becomes apparent that the 30-point drop is consistent with an almost straight-line decline in religiosity over the past 40 years.

In fact, contrary to what the headline suggests, the survey tells us nothing specific about lay Catholics' response to the clergy scandals.

Poor data on Catholic issues is only part of the story of a recent decline in the quality of information served up for the public by the media. Advances in telemarketing and telephone polling technologies and the growing competition within the media for news and audiences now support a growing industry of pollsters with the resources to reach thousands of people quickly and get timely answers to questions. The individuals who answer the phone are typically asked to respond to an omnibus survey of attitudes and preferences—questions submitted by a range of polling clients—regarding anything from religious affiliation to the brand of toilet paper found in the home.

CNN, USA Today, the New York Times, and other media outlets pay to have their questions added to the mix. Surprisingly, reputable academic research centers increasingly subscribe, as well. The results of such surveys are typically reported to the public with certain qualifiers intended to inspire confidence—usually to the effect that the data was drawn from "1,000-plus adult respondents" in a "national sample," with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. The problem is that this information doesn't necessarily indicate that the results are legitimate. The margin of error only tells us that the sample was large enough to produce relatively consistent responses—but nothing about a more important feature of the study, which is who is being polled. If a poll claiming to represent average Catholics instead reflects, say, the most strongly opinionated Catholics, then truth has been lost. Unfortunately, survey results are rarely presented for public consumption with a reckoning of the response rate—a standard statistic that tells how reliably the results represent the target population to which the data is ascribed.

Take, for example, a survey released last spring by Le Moyne College of Syracuse, New York, and conducted by Zogby International, on "Contemporary Catholic Trends." The pollsters reported that "one in five Catholics say a priest in their local diocese has been accused of committing child sexual abuse." I contacted Duncan J. McCully, the director of communications for Zogby, and asked him about the response rate for the study—in other words, how many persons were called to obtain the reported number of valid results.

The higher the response rate in a random sample, the more confident one can be that the results speak for the population. In the social sciences, an 85 to 90 percent response rate is considered desirable. Below 50 percent, the findings are considered dubious, since that means a majority of the people contacted refused to participate.

In the LeMoyne/Zogby poll, according to McCully, 1,508 completed responses were obtained by calling 41,033 people. In other words, the response rate was roughly one-third of 1 percent. Even assuming that only 25 percent of the people called were Catholic (and therefore able to provide valid responses), this outcome would be considered useless by social scientists. The respondents to this poll did not represent the average Catholic; they represented the tiny minority who did not hang up on the telemarketers who called them to ask about their religious experiences and attitudes—which makes one wonder, in what other, significant ways might they differ from fellow Catholics?

So what do we know about how Catholics view their Church? The best studies on U.S. Catholics have been done by academic social scientists, and they predate the Church scandal. These include various studies using data collected by NORC, a nonprofit national organization for research at the University of Chicago, which conducts an annual survey of general social indicators using face-to-face interviews with a carefully selected national sample. Sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley has combined the data from NORC's General Social Surveys with specially commissioned questionnaires also collected by NORC over the years to provide some of the most nuanced portraits of Catholic practices and beliefs available. More recently, solid data has come from a research project published in 1997 and headed by sociologist James Davidson at Purdue University. Davidson used multiple methods of data collection including focus groups, a sample of registered parishioners in Indiana, and a national sample of Catholics. The national sample was carefully adjusted to mirror the demographic characteristics of Catholic households, as gathered by the U.S. Census.

Academic studies by Greeley, Davidson, and others reflect ambitious attempts to gain a representative sense of the national Catholic experience. They've emphasized data collection among Catholic minorities that are usually undersampled, such as African-American and Hispanic Catholics. They've surveyed self-identified Catholics, not just those who are confirmed or registered in parishes. And they've triangulated data, that is, they've compared responses over time and from different sources to support their conclusions. And many of them have been replicated with consistent results. From such studies, the following can be said about American Catholics today:

« There is a significant generational gap among Catholics, and it is between pre-Vatican II Catholics (60 and older) and post-Vatican II Catholics (those under 60). Surprisingly, there are not large differences in religious behavior, practice, or attitudes among the various age cohorts of post-Vatican II Catholics. Twenty-something Catholics tend to resemble their post-Vatican II parents.

« Church attendance, daily private prayer, and acceptance of the legitimacy of ecclesial authority all declined sharply in the United States after Vatican II (1962-65). But a statistical decomposition of the data by Greeley associates these declines with the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968, rather than with the liturgical changes resulting from the council. In fact, Vatican II's liturgical innovations have met with approval from the majority of Catholics. On the other hand, a 1993 poll of self-identified Catholics reported that only 12 percent of Catholics accept Church authority on matters of birth control.

« Pre-Vatican II Catholics are more likely to see the institutional Church as an important mediator of their faith, whereas post-Vatican II Catholics, particularly the younger ones, are more likely to have an emotion-based affiliation. Post-Vatican II Catholics—especially the younger ones—are more likely to look to individual conscience as a source of moral authority. They feel they can be good Catholics even if they disagree with the pope and Church leaders, do not attend Mass regularly, and do not accept all Church teachings. Yet the majority of Catholics still believe that the pope is the true Vicar of Christ and that the Catholic Church is the one true Church.

« Registered Catholics accept the doctrines of Mary as the mother of God, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Trinity, and the Real Presence. While support for the Church's social teachings on the role of women, sexual behavior, and reproductive issues is mixed, both parish and non-parish Catholics identify with the Church's "preferential option for the poor." Paradoxically, however, a majority also believe that one can be a good Catholic without contributing time or money to the needy.

If we compare these findings to what we know about other religious groups, two markedly Catholic traits emerge. The first is that Catholics appear to view their religion as an ascribed characteristic, more like an ethnicity that stays with them forever than a voluntary choice. This is strikingly different from Protestants, a third of whom switch religious affiliation at least once in their lifetimes. Indeed, while 20 million, or roughly one-third of all baptized Catholics, are no longer registered with a parish, the majority of even these individuals view themselves as Catholic and would not consider changing religions. More than half of them still agree that the pope is the true Vicar of Christ, and 38 percent believe that the Catholic Church is the one true Church.

The second striking finding is that Catholics see the institutional Church and the magisterium as decreasingly relevant to being Catholic. If one can think of oneself as a good Catholic without attending Mass, without contributing to care for the poor, without believing in or following the teachings of the Church, what does this say about being Catholic in the 21st century? Perhaps more importantly, what should be the Church's response to this definition of Catholic identity?

The Church has a challenge in America to reconnect with those who consider themselves nominally Catholic. Social science research can help, by mapping the areas of disconnection and the common ground. But American bishops still suffer from what can generously be called myopia about research studies, consistently seeking to avoid or bury reports that bring disturbing information to light. A clear example of this can be found in their response to the shortages of priests and men and women religious.

Catholic researchers in academe and within the Church have known for at least a generation that a shortage of ordained men and women religious was precipitating a crisis for the Church. Today the average age of diocesan priests is 57, and the average age of vowed religious is 63. What's more, the shrinking ranks of religious orders has meant that the central Catholic institutions—the schools, universities, hospitals, and charities that were once staffed by these men and women at subsistence wages—are now facing both fiscal crises and a critical blow to their distinctiveness as Catholic-run entities. These shortages of priests and religious represent a threat to the American Church that is in some ways far greater than the threat posed by the clerical sexual abuse scandals, and yet the bishops have until recently chosen to collectively ignore them.

The first time the U.S. bishops gathered as a body to consider the priest shortage was at a national meeting in June of 2000 in Milwaukee. They spent a large part of the meeting discussing a recent study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and by CARA (the independent Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University) that examined the effects of the priest shortage. The study quoted one priest, interviewed in a focus group, as saying that "the best kept secret is the shortage of priests. We have kept it from the laity. We have covered it up in every way imaginable and pretend it doesn't exist." According to a report at the time in the National Catholic Reporter, Oregon's Archbishop John G. Vlazny "suggested that •we stop talking about the shortage of priests' since •it gives a bad impression' and •discourages the laity.' Instead, he said, bishops should concentrate on the •vibrancy' of the priesthood as many live it." Yet the very study commissioned by the bishops showed that the "secret" was out: 74 percent of lay Catholics reported a direct awareness of the shortages.

So far, the American Church hierarchy has made only sporadic attempts to learn in any systematic way what the laity thinks, and has tended to ignore results that might be discouraging. Of course, the question remains of what the bishops would—or even should—do with what they might learn if they undertook to gather the laity's opinions. The Church is not, after all, a democracy that seeks to reflect the interests of a constituency. It is a prophetic institution that seeks to fulfill God's call on earth.

Whether they agree or not, laity and Church remain headed down the same road, attached by history and identity if not by perfect accord on what this means. Yet without a more meaningful rapprochement between the laity and the hierarchy, it is likely that the institutional Church in the United States will grow to resemble some of its counterparts in European countries—where a low ratio of priests to parishioners and low attendance at Mass have reduced priests, in the main, to ceremonial functionaries, presiding at baptisms, funerals, and marriages.

Patricia M.Y. Chang

Patricia M.Y. Chang is an associate research professor in sociology and assistant director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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