As part of an ongoing national polling effort to track the views of American Catholics, Le Moyne College has released the findings of the October 2007 Contemporary Catholic Trends (CCT) poll, conducted in cooperation with Zogby International. The survey featured questions about Catholic attitudes about Church leadership and parish restructuring, attitudes about past U.S. presidents, and ‘civil religion.’
CIVIL RELIGION AND PAST PRESIDENTS
Respondents were asked a series of questions about civil religion – believing that God plays a direct role in the history and government of the United States. Thirty-one percent of respondents said that they strongly (14%) or somewhat (17%) agreed that the president’s authority comes from God. Seventy-six percent said that “rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are given by God,” while 66% said that American “government by the people is blessed by God.” Catholics are divided about the proper role of the United States in the world. Asked if the United States is “blessed by God in a way that other countries are not,” 49% said that they strongly (26%) or somewhat (23%) agreed. However, only 31% said that “the United States is destined by God to be the world’s moral leader.”
Dr. Darryl Caterine, assistant professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College who specializes in American religious history, said that the results “show that civil religion is alive and well among Catholics in post-9/11 America. In light of the overwhelming response sanctifying the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it would seem that Catholic civil religiosity is grounded in personal values as opposed to nationalism. This is reflective of a longstanding public Catholicism that makes distinctions between church and state, even as it advocates a vigorous engagement by Catholics with the values of the American public sphere.”
Answers to the civil religion questions were used to categorize respondents into low, medium, and high degrees of civil religiosity. Those who agreed with four or five of the statements are classified as having high civil religiosity, those who agreed with two or three statements are classified as having medium civil religiosity, while those who agreed with none or one of the statements are said to have low civil religiosity. Overall, 31% of Catholics reported a low level of civil religiosity, 38% reported a medium level, and 31% reported a high level.
Level of civil religiosity helps us understand different opinions of past U.S. presidents. While 60% of those with low civil religiosity regard Lincoln as among the best presidents, only 45% of those with high civil religiosity feel the same. The opposite pattern holds for President Reagan; 36% of those with high civil religiosity believe he is among the best, while only 17% of the least civilly religious hold Reagan in such high esteem.
APPROVAL RATINGS FOR RELIGIOUS LEADERS
Contemporary Catholic Trends regularly tracks lay approval of Church leaders. Catholics are asked about the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, the American bishops, and their local pastors. Asked if Pope Benedict is doing a good job leading the Church, 70% strongly (37%) or somewhat (33%) agree that he is, 13% somewhat (9%) or strongly (4%) disagree, and 17% have no opinion.
Approval of the U.S. Bishops’ leadership is somewhat lower. Respondents were asked if they believed the U.S. bishops are doing a good job leading the American church. Sixty-one percent of respondents somewhat (39%) or strongly (22%) agree that the bishops are doing a good job, 28% somewhat (17%) or strongly (11%) disagree, and 11% had no opinion.
As in earlier CCT surveys, approval is highest for leaders nearest to the laity, the parish pastors. Overall, 83% of Catholics agree somewhat (23%) or strongly (60%) that their pastor does a good job leading their local parish. Five percent have no opinion, while 12% are evenly divided between strongly and somewhat disagreeing that the local pastor was doing a good job.
ORDINATION OF WOMEN
Two other issues of Catholic leadership are worth noting. A majority (58%) of respondents believe that the Church should allow women to be ordained as priests. Attitudes about female ordination may help to explain disapproval of the pope and the U.S. bishops. While only 13% of Catholics disapprove of Pope Benedict’s leadership, 19% of those who support female ordination voice disapproval. Similarly, disapproval of the bishops is higher among those who support female ordination (32% disapprove) than among those who oppose female ordination (24% disapprove).
ADOPTING NEW MODEL OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Some Catholics endorse alternative models of Church leadership. As evidence, the fall 2007 survey found that 44% of respondents agree somewhat (22%) or strongly (22%) that it would be a good idea if parishes could choose their own priest from among available ordained priests. Opposition to such a proposal was voiced by 46% of the sample, 26% strongly disagreeing, while 10% had no opinion. Those who disapproved of their local pastor were more likely to support the proposal than others, 67% and 40% respectively.
Generational differences are also apparent as younger Catholics are more likely to agree that Catholic parishes should choose their own priest. Vatican II is a defining event in Catholic history and its timing serves as a good way to distinguish between older and younger Catholics. Agreement was reported by 31% of Catholics who came of age before Vatican II (born before 1941), 34% of those born between 1941 and 1960 (Vatican II Generation), and 56% of those born in 1961 (Post-Vatican II Generation) or later agreed.
These attitudes about leadership exist at a time when the American church is undergoing important structural changes. Many parishes are being closed or combined with others for a lack of parishioners and priests; 40% of respondents are aware of a parish that has closed in their diocese, while 18% report that their parish has been consolidated with another.
The Rev. Donald C. Maldari, S.J., Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies and director of Le Moyne’s Sanzone Center for Catholic Studies and Theological Reflection, noted a possible connection between recent changes and the possibility for a new church structure. “The evolution in parish structure in the United States may prove to be a rich occasion for the church to rethink its theology of ministry. The decline in the number of ordained clergy, which has in many cases necessitated the painful closing of parishes, is accompanied by a desire on the part of the laity to play a more active role in their church communities. The church in the United States will do well to discern what role the Holy Spirit is playing in this process.”
CATHOLICISM: THE “TRUE” RELIGION?
Asked whether or not all religions were equally good ways of finding truth and whether or not the Catholic Church is the “one true church,” respondents reported varying opinions.
Overall, 19% of respondents believed the Catholic Church is the one true church, 14% believed that while not all religions are equally good ways of finding truth the Catholic Church is not the one true church, and a strong majority (68%) strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that all religions are equally good.
Older Catholics are more likely to agree that the Catholic Church is the one true church. Vatican II was an ecumenical turning point for the church, and Catholics are increasingly open to the teachings of other traditions. Twenty-five percent of Catholics who came of age before Vatican II said the Catholic Church is the one true church, while 20% of those in the Vatican II Generation and only 14% of those in the post-Vatican II Generation agreed.
CATHOLICS & THE PRESIDENCY: PAST AND FUTURE
Respondents to the fall 2007 CCT survey were asked about the attention they are paying to the current candidates for the presidency in 2008. Overall, 46% of respondents reported paying a good deal (25%) or a lot of attention (21%). The early start to the current presidential campaign seems not to interest a significant minority, as over a quarter (27%) say they are paying only a little (21%) or no attention (6%) to the candidates at this point.
According to the fall 2007 survey, Catholic political identification is as follows: 40% Democrat, 32% Republican, 14% Independent, 12% reported no party affiliation, and 2% indicated some other party.
Attention to the current candidates is highest among those who identify with the Republican or Democratic parties. Among self-identified Republicans 53% say they are paying a good deal or a lot of attention, while 50% of Democrats say the same. Attention is lowest among those who identify with no party (18% say they are paying a good deal or a lot of attention) and those with other party affiliations (31% are paying a good deal or a lot of attention).
Survey participants were asked a series of questions about past U.S. presidents. Respondents were asked to think about the character of presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, and then to rate them relative to all U.S. presidents. Lincoln is considered “among the best” by over half of the respondents (54%), and 26% rated Lincoln as better than the average president. Roosevelt is more widely regarded as among the best (35%) than Reagan (25%) or Carter (10%). A quarter of respondents regard Carter as among the worst of all presidents (14%), or worse than average (11%).
Zogby International conducted interviews of 1,524 Roman Catholics chosen nationwide from a Zogby compiled database of Roman Catholics identified in previous polls. All calls were made from Zogby International headquarters in Utica, N.Y., from October 8 through October 10. The margin of error is +/- 2.6 percentage points. Data are weighted to more accurately reflect the Roman Catholic population by region, age, race and gender. Margins of error are higher in subgroups and reported group differences are statistically significant.