Thou art a pollster, and upon your rock …

Perhaps this is the rare GetReligion post that should begin with a biblical reference. Grab that Bible off your newsroom reference shelf and turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 18. Catholic readers are encouraged to quote this from memory:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

With that in mind, please watch the short CNN clip atop this post (hat tip to the American Papist). The exchange looks like this in print, starting with anchor Kyra Phillips asking Bishop Joseph Malone of Maine:

Phillips: So, Bishop, times are changing. Views are changing. You’re changing your tactics even. Or your — I guess you say your strategy. So, why not get on board with the 43 percent of Catholics?

Bishop Malone: The 43 percent who …

Phillips: Who have no problem with gay marriage.

Bishop Malone: Well their thinking is outside the realm of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years. And those are the folks that we want to focus on so they’ll perhaps be able to have what I would call an intellectual conversion about a very key building-block of society, that is the nature of marriage as the union of one man, one woman.

This exchange, for me, raises a basic question linked to mainstream coverage of religion news: Is it a good thing — good for ratings, even — to assign journalists to cover subjects that they clearly know nothing about?

Even if Phillips had poll numbers on her side that were up in the 75 percent range, one would still have to ask why the global Catholic church would decide to change 2,000 years worth of doctrine in the wake of a bad set of poll numbers in North America, in one part of the world (with echoes over in Europe, of course). I am not saying this as a matter of doctrinal prejudice, on my part. I am asking if Phillips has any understanding of how the Roman Catholic Church works. Do many mainstream news reporters, in effect, believe that the Catholic church is a democracy or that it should somehow become one?

Again, I am asking this as a matter of history. No matter what a reporter believes on these issues, isn’t it important to know what Catholic clergy, what Catholic bishops, can and cannot do in the structure of the church in which they have taken vows?

Moments later, she also seems to have suffered a brain freeze related to a pro-marriage website that has been launched by Malone and his diocese.

Phillips: So, Bishop, let me ask. … You know, this plan of action has changed quite drastically since 2009, you know, where you had very active campaign. And now you’re moving toward education and putting funds towards that. Are you softening your stance on same-sex marriage?

Bishop Malone: Not at all. It will be even stronger and more vigorous. One of our discoveries in 2009 was that really, many of our Catholic people in Maine could use a bit more profound understanding of how the church has understood marriage for 2,000 years. So, I decided, while we will certainly be in close contact with our allies who will lead the political battle, we intend to focus on the education and formation of consciences of our people.

Now, let me stress that this “43 percent of Catholics” are pro-gay marriage number is very significant and it is TOTALLY VALID for journalists to ask bishops tough questions about it. More on that in a moment.

However, once again we face an issue that is very similar to the whole “Catholic vote” mythology. When we say that 43 percent of Catholics are pro-gay marriage, what brand of Catholics are we talking about? Is that 43 percent located in a solid belt on the doctrinal left? Are these ex-Catholics? Once again, that familiar GetReligion Catholic voter typology (now tweaked) is relevant. Here it is, for those with short memories (we will, alas, be using this voter framework a bunch in a national election year):

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter … depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “Sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, here is my question for GetReligion readers.

If you were a CNN anchor, what question would you have asked Bishop Malone in this exchange, while using that 43 percent number as a reference point? Here’s my two-part offering: Bishop Malone, can you cite any example of the American Catholic hierarchy managing to convince a significant percentage of modern Catholics to change their views on this kind of Sexual Revolution issue? Would it help the church, in the long run, to simply encourage them to act on their convictions in other, more liberal pews?

Now, fill that reporter role and ask a question that might produce information that adds light as well as heat.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Sorry, Terry, but first I need to question the 43%. Too often badly constructed polls come up with all sorts of invalid results. So the first thing the reporter should do is to try to verify that the number is close to accurate by looking around for other polls as well as looking at the actual poll questions to see if they appear reasonable, at least at first glance.

    One question I have which has come up is to define marriage. Yes, I know we all think we know what it means to people, but does it mean married as legally defined or married as blessed by a church. I suspect some libertarians might fit in this category of saying that people should legally be able to sign a contract labeled marriage with certain legal benefits but not necessarily a union blessed by a church who has a theology that opposes same sex unions.

    I’d also want to know if the poll asked questions allowing the pollster to put people in the categories you’ve given here or similar categories. Then I’d want the 43% expressed in terms of those categories to see if this is an exception to the “almost always” wording or not. Again, I know what our assumptions are, but assumptions are just that until proven by facts.

    I’d also want to know how many Catholics are in fact ignorant of the Church’s teaching. Again there’s an assumption about the answer and one that needs to be proven. If some are ignorant and told about the Church’s position, how many change their own position? This should have been a followup poll question actually.

    I assume that these questions are not contained in a poll but instead the data is limited. So I’d ask the Bishop to offer his view on those questions: legal vs blessed, how many are in fact ignorant, whether he’s seen differences between the committed and the less involved Catholic and so forth?

    Then I’d ask him about studies of what causes people to change their minds about beliefs to see if he’s familiar with psychological knowledge about beliefs. As a good reporter, I would of course be familiar with the studies and be prepared to ask him questions of the kind that might arise from stories like this one http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/

    I’d also want to know how he will know if his campaign is working or not.

  • Martha

    I’d like some clarification as well; did the 43% (a minority, let us remember) agree to the legalisation of civil same-sex marriage, or were they polled on “Do you think your church should bless same-sex marriage?”

    This is a hot topic at the moment, as the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music for The Episcopal Church has just released resources for the blessing in church of same-gender relationships; that is, where the state has permitted civil same-sex marriages, the diocese can decide on a pastoral basis whether or not to institute church services of blessing.

    An interesting question might be to ask a Catholic bishop why the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church on this matter, but as it stands, you could have a poll saying 100% of Catholics admit to lying at some point in their lives, but that still wouldn’t change the law of the Church on keeping the Eighth Commandment (that’s Catholic numbering).

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    Nice one, Martha!

    (only 63% of Baptists admit to lying at some point in their lives) :D

  • John D

    I want to come to Phillips’s defense on this one. I’m sure she realizes that the Catholic Church is not a democracy and that the laity do not comprise a council of the church. However, with any group if the beliefs, practices, or opinions are at odds with those of the leadership, it’s a worthwhile question to ask. If 43% of Catholics thought that Catholic hospitals and universities should cover contraception in their employee health plans, that would be of interest. If 43% of Orthodox Jews regularly ate pork, it’d be worth asking a prominent rabbi about his flock.

    No, the Catholic Church is not a democracy. However, as TMatt noted, the Catholic Church has lost some members to other religious groups. Do they risk losing Catholics who are in favor of civil marriage for same-sex couples? What would the Catholic Church do if it found that congregants were leaving due to its views on gay people? Are all Bishops going to happy with fewer, more fervent Catholics.

    My question would be “Bishop, do you worry about alienating the people in the pews?”

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Here’s my question: “Bishop, you say it is necessary for the Church to do a much better job in teaching basic doctrines to the average person in the pews. Why have such things not been taught in the past? What made the church fail to do what you now say is necessary in previous years, and what makes you think it will do a better job this time. What have the consequences of the current failure been, and what benefits do you see happening from better instruction in the future?”

  • Martha

    Steve, is that figure a lie? ;-)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’d ask the bishop if what a poll shows some Catholics believe or don’t believe is relevant to what the teachings of the Catholic Church actually are? Or are polls only good for telling Church leaders where better catechesis is needed among the Catholic people?
    If I were the bishop I’d Ask The Reporter, that since the Catholic Church’s doctrines are not based on political log rolling (and won’t change), what is the media’s purpose in polling Catholics separately from other people?
    Are the polls just a device to drive a wedge between Catholics??
    I think Gingrich has the right idea. Have some questions of your own to fire back at reporters who are clearly ignorant on an issue. Why should anyone “suffer fools gladly” when reporters should give evidence of at least a minimal education in religion and history so they won’t ask foolish questions.

  • Bill

    Steve and Martha, yes, it’s a lie, but only for 37%.


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