AP-NORC poll details rift between lay Catholics and bishops
The hardline positions of many conservative Catholic bishops in the United States are not shared by a majority of lay Catholics. Most say abortion should be legal, promote greater LGBT inclusion and oppose denying communion to politicians who support abortion rights, according to a new poll ‘Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The poll, taken in mid-May, shows a clear gap between the mainstream views of American Catholics and some recent high-profile actions taken by church leaders.
For example, leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called on Catholics across the country to pray that the United States Supreme Court would end the constitutional right to abortion by overturning its 1973 ruling. Roe v. Wade. According to the new poll, 63% of Catholic adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 68% say Roe should be left as is.
On May 20, the Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, announced that he would no longer allow Speaker of the United States House, Nancy Pelosi, to receive Communion because of her support for the right to abortion.
According to the poll, only 31% of lay Catholics agree that politicians supporting abortion rights should be denied communion, while 66% say they should be allowed access to the sacrament.
An even larger majority – 77% – said Catholics who identify as LGBT should be allowed to receive Communion. This contrasts sharply with a policy issued by the Diocese of Marquette, which encompasses Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, that pastors should deny communion to transgender, gay, and non-binary Catholics “unless the person has repented.”
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said the rift between grassroots Catholics and bishops “reveals a breakdown in communication and trust — shepherds far removed from sheep.”
“This is a precarious time for the American Catholic Church,” she added in an email. “American Catholics are, on the whole, accustomed to living and working in a pluralistic society, and this poll reinforces the idea that they want the public square to remain pluralistic, free from coercion and oriented towards caring. vulnerable populations among us”.
The Reverend Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said the poll results did not surprise him and stressed the need for clergy and anti-abortion activists to redouble their efforts to change people’s positions .
“For us who work on pro-life issues, these kinds of polls are like a summons,” he said. “You have to do your job – maybe you have to do it better.”
As for the conservative bishops, “their awareness of the shortcomings revealed by the polls is precisely one of the reasons why they feel the need to speak out,” Pavone said. “They strive to exercise the role described for them in the scriptures, namely to patiently and persistently teach the faith, whether practical or not, to dispel confusion.”
Beyond the bishop/lay divide, the poll highlighted other challenges facing the church, which is the largest denomination in the United States
For example, 68% of Catholics reported attending religious services once a month or less. Compared to five years ago, 37% said they are now dating less often; 14% said they were dating more often.
During this five-year period, 26% of Catholics said their opinion of the Catholic Church had deteriorated, while 17% said their opinion had improved. Most said their opinion had not changed.
More than two-thirds of American Catholics disagree with Church policies that prohibit women from becoming priests. And 65% say the church should allow openly gay men to be ordained.
The poll was taken just after a leaked Supreme Court majority opinion bill that would overturn Roe v. Wade. The opinions of American Catholics, as expressed in the poll, were consistent with those of the general American public, both in terms of support for the legality of abortion and the preservation of Roe.
However, there were strong differences between the major religious groups. While 63% of Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, this position was shared by 74% of mainstream Protestants and only 25% of evangelical Protestants.
Sharon Barnes of Dallas, who converted to Catholicism as a young adult, appreciates the centuries-old consistency of Catholic doctrine. Yet it differs from the church on some major social issues, including abortion.
“It’s a woman’s right to decide,” Barnes, 65, said. “It’s something you kind of have to come to terms with, and it’s between you and God.”
Pedro Gomez, a 55-year-old Border Patrol agent in Rio Rico, Arizona, is a lifelong Catholic who prays nightly and attends church regularly. He understands the need for abortion in cases of rape, incest or saving a mother’s life, but said he views the procedure as the murder of a child.
Gomez was surprised that most American Catholics have some degree of support for abortion rights.
“There are a lot of gray areas now that were never there in my upbringing,” he said. “Maybe they’re watering down Catholicism…Now people can make their own rules.”
Ed Keeley, a 62-year-old public school teacher in Houston, was also raised Catholic. He described abortion as “a difficult subject”, saying he believed in the sanctity of life but that abortion should be allowed in specific cases, including rape or incest.
He finds it “ridiculous” that a priest refuses communion to someone because of his opinions on abortion or politics in general.
Last year, some conservative bishops, including Cordileone, argued publicly that President Joe Biden – a lifelong Catholic – should not receive communion because of his support for abortion rights. However, Pope Francis has voiced his opposition to such a stance, saying Communion “is not a prize for the perfect.”
Cordileone’s recent refusal of Communion for Pelosi was supported by several of his clerical colleagues, including the archbishops of Denver, Oklahoma City, Portland, Oregon and Kansas City, Kansas. However, Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque, Iowa, released a statement describing the action as “misguided.”
“As Jesus said, it’s the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy, and he gave us the Eucharist as a healing remedy,” Jackels said. “Don’t turn people away who need medicine.”
He also argued that abortion was not the only critical “life issue” facing the church.
“Protecting the earth, our common home, or making food, water, shelter, education and health care accessible, or defending against gun violence…these are also issues of life” , did he declare. “To be consistent, to fix the scandal of Catholics who are indifferent or opposed to all these other problems of life, they should also be denied Holy Communion.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director for the Washington-based Faith in Public Life clergy network, said some conservative bishops are engaging in culture wars “in ways that damage their already diminished relevance and credibility.”
“Most Catholics are fed up with bishops who want to weaponize the Communion in a hypocritical, one-issue campaign against pro-choice politicians, especially when we see Pope Francis offering a better roadmap,” Gehring said.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,172 adults, including 358 Catholics, was conducted May 12-16 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the American population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points, and for Catholics it is plus or minus 7.4 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
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