As the world mourns Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church faces a range of challenges in tending to its American flock, including a steep long-term decline in church attendance and a broad distance from Rome in views on church policy and social issues alike.
About a quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholics, a number that's held steady for decades (ranging percent from 22 percent to 29 percent in annual averages of Gallup poll data since 1948). But the share of Catholics who say they've attended church in the past week has fallen dramatically, from 74 percent in 1955 to 45 percent last year.
Many Catholics -- notably unlike evangelical Protestants -- are adept at separating their political and religious preferences, and comfortable holding views -- on abortion, the death penalty, legal recognition of gay couples, premarital sex, birth control, the ordination of women, marriage by priests and many other issues -- that are very different from those of their church.
In an example of the separation they maintain, 17 percent of Catholic voters in the 2004 exit poll called "moral values" the top issue in their vote (a flawed question politically, but useful in this sense), compared with 41 percent of evangelical Protestants and 28 percent of all non-Catholic Christians.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, 57 percent of Catholics said the next pope should change church policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today; fewer, 41 percent, preferred maintaining traditional policies. Among churchgoing Catholics there was a 48 percent to 51 percent division on the question -- only a tepid call for tradition from the most faithful.
In a weekend Associated Press poll, 63 percent of Catholics said the next pope should give the laity a greater say in how the church is governed. And a weekend Gallup poll had results on church policy much like we've seen for years: Seventy-eight percent of Catholics said the church should "allow birth control," 63 percent said it should let priests marry, 59 percent said it should ease doctrine on stem-cell research and 55 percent said it should open the priesthood to women. (All were lower, but not insubstantial, among weekly churchgoing Catholics.)
Top Election Issue
This disconnect with Rome was underscored in a more detailed ABC/Post poll in October 2003, when 60 percent of Catholics -- including 54 percent of weekly churchgoing Catholics -- said their local church officials better represented their religious and moral views than did John Paul II. Indeed, 62 percent of Catholics said the church is "out of touch" with the views of American Catholics. (Fewer weekly churchgoers, 44 percent, agreed.)
|Next Pope Should...||All||Churchgoing|
|Maintain traditional church policies||41%||51|
|Change policies to refelect the views of Catholics today||57||48|
A recent example: In an ABC News poll on Terri Schiavo, 63 percent of Catholics supported removing the brain-damaged Florida woman's feeding tube, precisely the same as the number among all Americans.
And again in the 2004 exit poll, Catholic voters were more permissive than non-Catholics on the issue of legal recognition of homosexual relationships, and roughly equivalent on abortion. (Twenty-nine percent of Catholics opposed legal recognition of same-sex couples, compared with 40 percent of non-Catholics. And 53 percent of Catholic voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as did 56 percent of non-Catholics.)
These disconnects are likely one reason that relatively few Catholics --- 36 percent in Gallup's poll -- call it "very important" to them personally who's chosen as the next pope. Interestingly, even fewer weekly churchgoing Catholics, 24 percent, said so.