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Polls: Catholics would like to see women priests.

Catholics would like to see women priests, but most don't feel strongly about the issue. That is what opinion polls suggest about the attitudes of American Catholics toward the ordination of women.

Surveys show that support for women's ordination has climbed steadily among Catholics in the United States. Gallup polls have indicated that as many as two thirds of Catholics would like to see the church lift its ban on women priests. In 1985, fewer than half of the Catholics surveyed by Gallup took the same position.

Still, only a minority of Catholics, 37 percent, said they "strongly agreed" that women should be ordained, according to a 1992 Gallup poll.

Supporters of women's ordination have used the polling data to buoy their contention that Catholics oppose the male-only priesthood.

"It's a tidal wave of opinion that's clearly running in opposition to the Vatican," said Sr. Maureen Fiedler, coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, an activist group that promotes the ordination of women. "The polls show that the ban on women priests doesn't make sense to the average Catholic anymore."

But those who defend the church's teaching on women priests are quick to argue that the average Catholic does not care much about the issue either way.

"Catholics are concerned about other things, like how good the local Catholic school is or whether the sermon on Sunday is relevant to their lives," said William Donohue, executive director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, based in New York. He said few Catholics would leave the church over the women's issue, whether or not the church decided ultimately to ordain them.

Fiedler agreed, to a point. "I don't think this is an issue that average Catholics in the parish would see as affecting their daily lives," she said. But that may change, she said, as more Catholics are unable to receive the Eucharist because of the priest shortage.

"I think you'll see Catholics saying that the male-only priesthood is nothing compared to our right to the Eucharist," Fiedler said.

Several Gallup polls have been taken on behalf of Catholics Speak Out, based in Hyattsville, Md. A 1992 poll found that 67 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement: "It would be a good thing if women were allowed to be ordained as priests." That was 20 percent more than when Gallup posed the same statement seven years earlier.

Of those who agreed, 37 percent said they "strongly agree" and 30 percent said they "somewhat agree."

A more recent poll, conducted in April 1993 by Gallup and NCR, showed that 64 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement in favor of women's ordination. The three-point difference from 1992 is within the margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. (The NCR/Gallup poll did not distinguish between those who "strongly agree" and others who "somewhat agree.")

Some who oppose women's ordination say the polling methods are skewed because they include all self-identified Catholics, even those who do not practice the faith. Critics say the findings would be different -- less favorable to the pro-ordination camp -- if the surveys dealt with committed Catholics.

"With these surveys the results are preordained," said Fr. Kenneth Baker, editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a journal for Catholic clergy.

The NCR/Gallup poll did not include questions about levels of commitment, said William D'Antonio, a Catholic University of America sociologist who developed the survey. He said support for women's ordination ran at 53 percent among those he called "the most highly committed" Catholics. They are church members who said they attended Mass weekly, looked upon their faith as the most, or one of the most, important factors in their lives and would never leave the church.

As to whether the most committed Catholics support women's ordination, the 53 percent figure in this poll is inconclusive, when allowing for the margin of error.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 17, 1994
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