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Poll raises questions about future Catholic identity.

The 1993 Gallup Poll of Catholics is the second sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter. The first, in 1987, was designed to discern the mind of American Catholics on issues of faith and the institutional church. Its results were reported in NCR Sept. 11, 1987.

However, wide-ranging events have had an impact on Catholics since then. The Cold War, for example, has come to an end, with all the Cold War rhetoric. We have been through a presidential campaign and election of a youthful new president. Women's issues have been more intense than ever. (Remember the debates over the bishops' pastoral letter on women, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and the arrival of a new first lady unlike any in the past.) Sexual misconduct by priests has been constantly in the news.

We should expect changes in Catholic attitudes, since the entire United States is changing. Catholics are now in the mainstream of American life. Now they are going to college at higher rates than Protestants, enjoy family incomes higher than the Protestant average, and their children are educated increasingly in non-Catholic high schools and colleges. All these trends have an effect.

Periodic pools measuring basic attitudes are the best way to assess underlying attitude changes. The NCR/Gallup survey of 1993 was launched with exactly this in mind. It repeated earlier polls, mostly the 1987 poll of Catholics. But also it repeated a few questions asked in a 1985 poll and others earlier.

With surveys of this size, changes need to be at least 5 percentage points to be statistically reliable (and not just measurement error). When one compares subgroups, for example women only or college-educated only, the differences need to be greater for reliability -- at least 8 percentage points.

Basic trends

Past research has found that on basic religious topics, attitude trends commonly are not faster than 1 percent a year or at most 2 percent. This is roughly what we found in the 1993 survey, but on a few topics attitudes are changing faster.

Stated most generally, the trends indicate a shift from reliance by Catholics on institutional church authority to individual authority with regard to moral questions. They indicate a greater claim for lay participation in church decision-making as well as generally more relaxed feelings about the changes in church life expected from the priest shortage.

The biggest changes we found were:

1. An increase in persons saying you can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching regarding abortion (17 point increase over six years);

2. An increase in persons saying laity should have the right to participate in deciding how to spend parish money (17 point increase over six years);

3. A decrease in people saying it would be unacceptable if, due to the priest shortage, their parish would not have a resident priest but only a lay administrator and visiting priests (17 percentage point decrease over eight years);

4. A decrease in people saying it would be unacceptable if in the future no priest were available to visit the sick (16 point decrease over eight years);

5. An increase in persons saying laity should have the right to participate in deciding about women in the priesthood (14 point increase over six years);

5. A decrease in people saying it would be unacceptable if in the future marriages were performed only by deacons or lay officials, not priests (13 point decrease over eight years).

These are all manifestations of an increased desire for lay participation in church affairs and a greater acceptance of parish changes because of the shortage of priests. These trends are not new. From available evidence, they were already in place in the 1970s and 1980s. And we may expect them to continue. Evidence for their continuation is the difference between young adults and older adults.

If young adults are different, we may expect future trends in the direction of their attitudes. In the 1993 poll, the young adults and the most educated adults were in fact found to be different; persons 34 or younger averaged about 15 to 20 percentage points different from those 55, in the same direction as the underlying trend.

Youth and young adults

It is a sociological generalization that youth and young adults and especially educated young adults are the forerunners in a period of cultural change. For example, when immigrants come to another land and begin assimilating, the youth are the first to do so. This process has been occurring bit by bit for American Catholics since the 1950s and 1960s, and of course the young adults are ahead of the older adults. In this context we include not just high school and college-age youth, but also those in their 20s and early 30s.

Today the young adults are the most restless with clerical authority and the most in favor of a participatory church. People today wonder if Catholic identity can survive in this new cultural scene. Our data lead us to expect a gradual shift from specific Catholic identity to a broader Christian identity, so that young people will have more and more difficulty feeling a unique truth and value in the Roman Catholic Church.

This raises the most basic theological questions. Does Jesus Christ care about specific Catholic identity? Are the changes in lay attitudes good news or bad news to Jesus Christ?

Freedom of conscience

A series of questions, both in 1987 and 1993, asked who should have the final say about what is right or wrong in five specific moral topics. That is, whose voice should be accepted as stating God's will on these topics?

The interview set forth three options for the respondent. First, the church leaders, that is, the pope and bishops. Second, individuals taking church teachings into account and deciding for themselves. Third, both individuals and church leaders working together.

Of these three, only the first and second are found in present-day debates about moral authority. Commonly the issue is couched as asking who should prevail in competing claims about knowing moral truth -- the church leaders, or the individual acting on an informed conscience?

Catholic moral teaching since Thomas Aquinas has stressed the ultimate primacy of the informed individual conscience. Yet in parish life, it has been commonly taught for many years that the church leaders can claim moral authority from God.

The idea of a third option, "both working together," is not clear in the moral debate and is indeed less clear in principle. Yet we needed to include it among the responses after our initial pretests. Poll respondents requested it. So we did, and indeed it is closest to the opinions of many Catholics today. The trends from 1987 to 1993 were mixed, but with a general increase in "both individuals and church leaders" and a decrease in "church leaders." and a decrease in "church leaders."

The trend is strongest on "sexual relations outside of marriage," where 11 percent fewer in 1993 said that church leaders should have the final say, and 9 percent more said that both individuals and church leaders working together should have the final say. This attitude trend is moving toward an affirmation of the church as the people of God working together, and away from the strong claims of clerical authority we have experienced in the past.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Catholicism: Trends in the '90s - NCR/Gallup Poll Supplement
Author:Hoge, Dean
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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