American Catholics and the Pope: Disconnect vs. Desire for Tradition

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in America to face a conflicted Catholic flock, in which some have left the faith and others see the church as out of touch with their views – yet a desire for tradition continues to exert its pull.

While 29 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, fewer, 22 percent, identify themselves as Catholics now. And many of those who remain within the church have compunctions about it: Sixty-two percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say it's out of touch with the views of American Catholics today.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

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That sense of distance is 10 points higher now than it was in April 2005, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope. The change has occurred almost entirely among those who attend Mass weekly; 52 percent now see the church as out of touch, up from 35 percent in 2005.

In specific examples, majorities of Catholics favor ordaining women and allowing priests to marry. And despite the church's settlement of many such cases, 73 percent disapprove of the way it has handled the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests, up 20 points since the issuance of a church report in early 2004.

Despite these differences, tradition remains a powerful force, leaving some Catholics torn between their policy preferences and their desire for continuity. Even while just over six in 10 say the church is out of touch, substantially fewer Catholics, 45 percent, say the pope should change its policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today. Half instead say he should maintain traditional policies, a number that rose sharply from 33 percent in 2003 to 50 percent in 2005, then held steady in this poll.

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This dichotomy exists because a substantial number of Catholics who oppose some church policies nonetheless rate tradition as more important. Among those who favor ordaining women, 40 percent at the same time say tradition is more important than change. So do 38 percent of those who favor allowing priests to marry, and a third of those who see the church as out of touch with the views of American Catholics.

BENEDICT – Through these crosscurrents, Benedict maintains broad popularity among Catholics: Seventy-four percent express a favorable impression of him overall. That compares to 87 percent for his long-serving predecessor, John Paul II, in 2005.

The traditionalist pope's ratings are highest among Catholics who think the Church is in touch with Catholics' views (among whom 89 percent view him favorably), who favor maintaining tradition (85 percent) and weekly churchgoers (80 percent). He's rated favorably by fewer, but still around two-thirds, of Catholics who think the church is out of touch, who favor change over tradition, or who attend Mass less often.

Benedict's favorability rating from non-Catholics is much lower, 41 percent, largely because so many non-Catholics, 32 percent, haven't formed an opinion of him. John Paul, by contrast, was viewed favorably by 61 percent of non-Catholics at the end of his papacy.

ATTENDANCE and ALLEGIANCE – Self-reported church attendance by Catholics is up, possibly in anticipation of the pope's visit. In 2007 polls, 26-28 percent of Catholics reported attending weekly Mass; it's 41 percent in this survey.

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