Catholic League Survey Yields Surprising Results

Author: Henry V. King


by Henry V. King

NEW YORK-Because a number of polls concerning Catholics and their Church are done for ideological reasons and sometimes "the data are cooked," the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights commissioned its own scientifically conducted poll recently, and its findings uncovered some genuine surprises.

The Survey of American Catholics showed, in contrast to other polls, that a majority of Catholics 51.8 %, attend Mass every Sunday, with almost 80% of senior citizens 65 years and over, going to Mass once a week or more.

It showed, for example, that Catholics by a 5 to 3 ratio want the Church to stick to its founding principles and beliefs, rather than "change to conform to modern-day opinions of its members." It showed there is strong support for nor ordaining known homosexuals to the priesthood from seven of ten Catholics who attend Mass regularly, 69.9%, while only 22.6% think the Church should do so.

It revealed that of those Catholics who have children under 18 93.3% say it is important that their children follow Church teaching on abstaining from premarital sex, 80.4% say Church teaching is important on abortion, and 72.3% say it is important that their children adhere to Church teaching and choose marriage over cohabitation.

It disclosed that complaints about the role of women in the Church -despite a barrage of media opinion in recent years to the contrary -were not among Catholics' top ten concerns. The complaint that "Catholicism does not treat women as equals" ranked 12th on the list, and the complaint that "women can't be priests" was 14th.

And while the survey revealed that 66.5% say the Church should ordain married men as priests, that 58.4% say the Church should abandon its opposition to artificial birth control, that 29% say the Church should abandon its pro-life position on abortion, and that 55 % favor the ordaining of women, what is most significant, according to Catholic League President Dr. William Donohue, is the answer to the question: "If the Catholic Church did change its positions as suggested, how would that affect your commitment to the Church?" The answer is that an astonishing 82.9% of Catholics would be just as committed, if not more so, if the Church did not make the changes many have suggested.

This finding that "Catholics are committed," Dr. Donohue emphasized, puts to rest "the argument that the Church had better tailor its teaching to popular opinion lest it risk losing the faithful:

"How many times have we heard that many American Catholics do not accept certain Church teachings, setting up the familiar conclusion that unless Rome changes with the times, American Catholics will walk away from the Church.

"That relatively few have walked down the block to the nearest Episcopalian church seems to be overlooked. More startlingly, it is precisely those religions that have become most assimilated to the culture that have lost the greatest number of the faithful."

The survey also lent truth to the suspicion-one held by Dr. Donohue and other discerning Catholics -that many polls are tilted against the Catholic Church's position because disproportionately more disaffected Catholics than loyal Catholics are polled.

This can be seen readily, Dr. Donohue pointed out, in the response to the question, "Is the Catholic Church unfairly criticized by the media on social issues?" The Catholics who go to church once a month or more are split, with 44.6% saying that the media are fair, and 43.3% saying unfair. But among those who do not go to Mass at all, the breakdown was 51.8% responding that the media are fair, and only 26.5% responding unfair.

"Similarly," said Dr. Donohue holder of a doctorate degree in sociology from New York University, "those who think the Catholic Church should change its beliefs, as opposed to those who think it should stick to its founding principles, look more kindly on media criticism. The breakdown on the former group is 64.4% who say fair to 25.6% who say unfair. For those who favor the Church's sticking to principle, 47.6% believe media criticism to be fair, while 40.8% say it is unfair.

"It makes sense that those who are most critical of the Catholic Church are also the most indulgent of the media criticism of it."

Dr. Donohue declared one important reason for the Catholic League's commissioning the new sampling, conducted by the well-respected firm of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates of Alexandria, Va., was that pollsters "had not seen fit to ask the kind of questions the Catholic League would like to have asked."

Dr. Donohue, a former resident scholar at the Heritage Foundation, prefaced the survey findings by recounting that some of the earliest polls conducted of American Catholics were done for political purposes, and they were done dishonestly:

"To be specific, beginning in 1971, two years before the Supreme Court decision in , the National Abortion Rights Action League began planning its 'Catholic strategy,' the purpose of which was to discredit the Catholic Church.

"According to Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the chairman of the Medical Committee, NARAL's arsenal included 'fictitious polls and surveys' designed to make it appear as if American Catholics were deserting the teachings of the Church and the dictates of their consciences in droves. Indeed, Dr. Nathanson reproduced memos from early NARAL meetings to buttress his point.

"Things have changed somewhat since the 1970s. There are no more fictitious polls, but what has not changed is the desire to paint a picture of American Catholics that is sharply at odds with the Vatican. That's why we hear so many times that many American Catholics do not agree with certain Catholic teachings, and that unless Rome changes with the times, American Catholics will leave their Church."

For these reasons and others, Dr. Donohue explained, Fabrizio McLaughlin sampled 800 Catholics 18 years and older who were selected from every major demographical group and weighted in accordance with their proportionate national distribution. The survey reflected the facts that there are more females than males in the population and that there are more Catholics living in the northeast than anywhere else in the country.

With respect to the poll's accuracy, Dr. Donohue had this to say:

"It is often said that it is impossible for a small selection of the population to be an accurate gauge of the American populace. As a sociologist who is trained in survey research, I can say without equivocation that survey research that is methodologically sound can indeed provide a fairly accurate picture of the population it seeks to study. What it provides may only be a snapshot, but if survey research is done properly, it can be of enormous value.

". . . It can be said that in this survey, there is a very high degree of probability that if every Catholic over the age of 18 had been questioned, the final tally would differ by no more than 3.5%, plus or minus, from the answers reported here."

The survey further revealed that when asked what Catholics like most about the Catholic religion, the top ten answers were: I) Tradition; 2) Everything; 3) Mass; 4) Community/Togetherness; 5) Attitude/Belief; 6) Comforting/Familiar; 7) Principles/Values; 8) Teachings; 9) Faith; 10) Sacraments.

When asked what Catholics like least about their religion, the leading ten answers were: 1) Inflexible; 2) Prohibit Use of Birth Control; 3) Too Many Requests for Money; 4) Pro-Life Position; 5) Priests Can't Marry; 6) Closed-Minded; 7) Confession to a Priest; 8) Has Become Too Contemporary; 9) Divorce Stand; 10) Hypocritical Policies.

Dr. Donohue concluded his survey report by stressing that the of the Catholic Church does not, nor should it, consult the latest Gallup poll to determine whether certain changes should be made. But he added:

"But even if it did, any honest social scientist would have to agree that-after seeing the results of this survey-it would be foolish to listen too closely to those who want the most changes. As we have seen, it is precisely the most disaffected who want the most changes. The rank-and-file are not only not raging for change, they are quite at home with the Catholic Church the way it is."

The Catholic League president predicted that both the UN's Beijing Conference on Women in September and the arrival of Pope John Paul II in the United States in October will provide numerous opportunities to discuss the so-called divisions between American Catholics and the Vatican. He added the hope that drawing on the results of the Catholic League's survey would help "set the record straight."

Readers of wishing to obtain the league's full survey findings can write to: The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1011 First Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

This article was taken from the June 22, 1995 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.