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U.S. Catholics loyal, choose moral terms.

Gallup Poll indicates greater self-reliance in faith commitments

KANSAS CITY, Mo.--Growing numbers of lay Catholics -- from the mainstream, as well as the edges of the church -- are personally making up their own minds on matters of church practice and morality, according to a National Catholic Reporter/Gallup Poll.

Large numbers of U.S. lay Catholics continue to move away from reliance on official church teachings to greater self-reliance in evaluating morality, the poll found. These shifts are especially pronounced among women and younger Catholics.

Further, the poll showed that large numbers of lay Catholics want greater roles in church decision-making.

From the NCR/Gallup Poll, taken last May, a picture of the church emerges: The nation's Catholics are largely loyal to the faith as they perceive it, but increasingly at odds with institutional directives.

The poll was a follow-up to an NCR/Gallup Poll taken in May 1987. It allows, then, for an analysis of changes in lay attitudes during the past six years.

The following are a few examples of the major changes occurring between the 1987 and 1993 surveys (see tables 1-14, pages 22-25):

* A 17 percent increase in Catholics saying, "You can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching regarding abortion";

* A 17 percent increase in Catholics saying, "The laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent";

* A 17 percent decrease among Catholics saying, "It would be unacceptable if because of the priest shortage there would be no resident priest in the parish but only a lay administrator and visiting priests."


The same trends held also for the most highly committed Catholics (see tables 15-18, pages 26, 27), those who go to Mass at least once a week (43 percent in 1993), who say the church is among the most important part of their lives (43 percent in 1993) and who say they would never leave the church (70 percent in 1993).

For example, among these most committed Catholics the increases among those who said you could be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching on abortion were 14 percent, 14 percent and 17 percent respectively between 1987 and 1993. This brings the totals on these three variables to 40 percent, 36 percent and 51 percent respectively.

"This is dramatic change," said William D'Antonio, a sociologist who currently has a research appointment at Catholic University and is a developer of the survey. "It indicates the church's efforts to make abortion a litmus test for orthodoxy lost ground even with its most committed laity."

Additionally, among the most committed Catholics between 72 and 76 percent said you could be a good Catholic without contributing to Peter's Pence, the pope's special annual collection. These figures represent a change away from papal support of 10 to 13 percent over the six years.

Further, majorities of the most committed said the laity should have the right to participate in such church affairs as selecting priests for the parish, with increases ranging between 14 and 16 percent over the six years; and majorities with increases ranging between 14 and 17 percent saying the laity should have the right to participate in deciding if women should be ordained.

Similar patterns were found on almost all issues, including those on divorce and remarriage without an annulment.


The pool showed that only a minority of lay Catholics now think that bishops only should determine the morality of key questions of Catholic practice. For example, only one out of four Catholics think the bishops only should have the authority to decide about remarriage without annulment.


"I see a continuing erosion of the laity's confidence in the leadership of the clergy," said sociologist Jim Davidson of Purdue University, one of the sociologists who helped develop the survey. "An increasingly large number of people are unwilling to give the final say to the authorities of the church. A large number are saying they want the final say to be a joint decision on the part of church leaders and laypeople."

An overwhelming majority of those surveyed in both 1987 and 1993 -- ranging above 80 percent -- said they "should have the right to participate in deciding how church income should be spent."

The NCR/Gallup Poll measured commitment to the church by gender. It found that more women go to church on a regular basis than do men (see table 19, page 28). Forty-nine percent of women interviewed and 32 percent of men interviewed say they attend Mass at least weekly.

Again, 49 percent of the women and 37 percent of the men said the church is "among the most important parts of their lives." While both men and women are change-oriented in 1993, the poll found, women are more so, with the abortion issue again a striking example.
 Table 5

Question: Some people think the Catholic church should have
more democratic decision-making in church affairs that do not
involve matters of faith than it has at the present time. Do
you favor or oppose this idea ... (Numbers are percents.)

 Percent "Favor"
 1987 1993
a. at the local parish level? 60 61
b. at the diocesan level? 55 60
c. at the level of the Vatican? 51 58

The percentage of women saying you can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching on abortion jumped from 34 percent in 1987 to 56 percent in 1993, while the percentage jump for men was from 45 percent in 1987 to 55 percent in 1993.


Women appeard to show a substantial change over the past six years in attitudes on moral issues effecting them. "On any of the issues that seem to touch on sexuality, women took a much more radical stand than they did the last time," said Ruth Wallace, professor of sociology at George Washington University and one of the developers of the survey. "They were more progressive, more questioning of the authority of the church."

Asked last May if church teaching on abortion had strengthened or weakened church commitment, 36 percent of the women interviewed said it had strengthened it and 25 percent said it had weakened it.

Six years earlier, 46 percent said church teaching on abortion had strengthened their commitment to the church and 19 percent said church teaching on abortion had weakened their commitment to the church.

Asked last May if the church's position against the ordination of women had strengthened or weakened their commitment to the church, 13 percent of women said it had strengthened their commitment and 27 percent said it had weakened their commitment.

Six years earlier, 23 percent said it had strengthened commitment and 22 percent said it had weakened it.

The NCR/Gallup Poll also found the laity are adapting to the growing priest shortage by accepting more and more lay control of such activities as baptisms, marriages and visiting the sick (see table 20, page 28).

For example, when the laypersons were asked if they would be willing to accept certain changes in their home parishes if a shortage of priests required a reduction of priestly activities, a total of 51 percent said they would find it "very acceptable" or "somewhat acceptable" to have marriages performed by a deacon or layperson. This compares with 38 percent in 1987. Forty-one percent said they would accommodate to less than one Mass a week in their parish. This compares with 28 percent in 1987.

"Catholics are becoming increasingly accommodating to priestless parishes," said Wallace. "The bishops ought to consider this before they consider closing or amalgamating parishes or bringing in foreign priests."


The poll found generational differences with older Catholics being the most conforming to official church teachings and the youngest surveyed the least conforming (see table 21, page 29). For example, among the 55-year-and-older Catholics 34 percent said the individual should have the final say on the morality of sex outside of marriage. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, the figure was 51 percent.

Among older Catholics, 90 percent said they pray daily or more; among the younger Catholics, 53 percent said they pray daily or more. Sixty-three percent of the older group said they attend Mass once a week or more. Twenty-four percent in the younger group said they attend Mass once a week or more.

The poll brought into question the long-term effectiveness of major U.S. episcopal teaching efforts. It found, for example, that only 18 percent of those interviewed last May said they were familiar with the bishops 1983 peace pastoral and only 19 percent said they were familiar with the U.S. bishops 1986 justice pastoral. This compared with 29 percent and 25 percent respectively of lay Catholics who said they were familiar with the pastorals in 1987.

A large number of Catholics--44 percent -- expressed familiarity with the bishops pastoral on women, scrapped last year after nearly a decade of episcopal conference work.

The poll found evidence that the clergy sexual problems facing the church in recent years have weakened the commitment of a significant number of lay Catholics to the institution (see table 22, page 29).

Fifty percent of those surveyed said reports that priests had abused children sexually had weakened their commitment to the church. Forty-one percent said the reports had no effect on their commitment.

Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said reports that a significant number of priests had homosexual tendencies had weakened their commitment to the church; 55 percent said these reports had no effect on their commitment.

The "consistency" and the "direction of the findings," D'Antonio said, indicate that a "new voice" is emerging in the church, one expressing a "strong sense of the personal autonomy, pluralism and democracy that permeates the larger American society."


D'Antonio added, "The argument that the voices of dissent come only from the marginal Catholics is strongly refuted by these data."

The poll was initially developed for the National Catholic Reporter by a team of sociologists including Dean Hoge of the Life Cycle Institute of Catholic University, D'Antonio, Wallace and Davidson.

The NCR/Gallup Poll, conducted in May by telephone interviews with 802 lay Catholics, has a plus or minus 4 percent accuracy.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Catholicism: Trends in the '90s - NCR/Gallup Poll Supplement
Author:Fox, Thomas C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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