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

American Catholics are torn between changing attitudes and desire for tradition.

April 14, 2008 — -- 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.

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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.

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.

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.