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

Weekly attendance by Catholics remains below that reported by evangelical Protestants, among whom 59 percent say they attend church at least weekly. Far fewer non-evangelical Protestants, just 16 percent, report going to church on at least a weekly basis.

While Catholicism remains the single largest faith in this country, adherence is down when those who were raised in the religion are compared with those who practice it now. While 29 percent of adults were raised Catholic, 22 percent in this poll say they're Catholic now (and a steady average of 21 percent in the past year).

There's no such drop among Protestants – 43 percent were raised Protestant, 45 percent say they're Protestants now. Instead the other significant change is in the number who say they have no religion, or are agnostic or atheist – 4 percent raised that way, vs. 13 percent who now hold those views.

MARRIAGE/WOMEN – Support for ordination of women and marriage by priests are both somewhat below their peaks, but nonetheless higher than their level in the 1980s. In a 1987 poll just 49 percent favored ordaining women. That rose to 67 percent in 2003 before settling to 60 percent in this survey.

Similarly, support for allowing priests to marry grew from 53 percent in 1986 to a high of 65 percent in 1995; it, too, is 60 percent now.

The differences between men and women on these questions are not significant. The biggest differences are among weekly and less-frequent churchgoers, and those who think the church is in or out of touch with the views of Catholics today.

There are any number of other issues on which Catholics show a disconnect from the church. For example, in recent ABC/Post polling 68 percent of Catholics have supported the death penalty, 62 percent have supported legal abortion and 79 percent have said the government should do more to prevent illegal immigration. But the pope and American Catholics may be more in accord on the war in Iraq: The Vatican strongly opposed the war, and six in 10 Catholics now say it was not worth fighting. (On each of these, the views of Catholics are much like the attitudes of Americans overall.)

ABUSE SCANDAL – On another issue, the church has had a setback in views of its handling of its sexual abuse scandal. In 2002 and 2003 sizable majorities of Catholics disapproved of its handling of the issue; in 2004, however, upon its issuance of a major report on the problem, disapproval dropped to 53 percent.

It hasn't held: Disapproval is back up to 73 percent in this poll, about the same among Catholics as it is among Americans of other faiths.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 10-13, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,197 adults, including an oversample of Catholics for a total of 292 Catholic respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin for the full sample, 5.5 points for Catholics. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

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