Good Catholic info, sort of, but lousy ‘Catholic’ headline

Right now, editors in major newsrooms are doing everything they can to cover the papal horse race over at the Vatican. It’s crunch time.

Thus, journalists are asking questions such as these:

How will the cardinals vote?

What are they doing to campaign and win votes?

What are the political issues that are being debated?

What are the names of the factions?

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, based on their stances on the political issues that matter to editors?

Who is most likely to favor the changes in ancient doctrines that the editors would like to see made?

At the heart of all this, as of late, is the drive to understand “what Catholics want” from a new pope. This leads to polls built on the assumption that there are people called “normal Catholics” who can be polled and plugged into the questions listed above.

Oh my. That sound you hear, after reading all of this, is the sound of church-going, active, doctrinally minded Catholics screaming, because framing a papal election in these terms — for them — is kind of like listening to fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

This produces headlines such as the following, care of The Washington Post:

Poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics favor change

The top of the story under this headline is oh so typical:

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, the poll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

I am happy to report that, right after this newsy train wreck, the reporting team — as opposed to the headline writing team — got its act together and alerted readers to the reality behind these numbers.

In other words, the word “Catholic” is now pretty much meaningless, unless one knows to degree to which the person wearing that adjective is active in practicing the traditions of the faith.

The seemingly contradictory results reflect a schism between regular churchgoers and those who attend church less frequently. Catholics who go nearly weekly are more likely to say they want the new pope to maintain traditions. Those who go less frequently are more apt to favor change. …

The Post-ABC poll finds 55 percent of Catholics opposing the ban on married priests, while 58 percent oppose the prohibition on female priests. About a third say they want to keep the priesthood male and unmarried.

That sounds about right, in a land in which fewer than 10 percent of the “Catholics” ever go to Confession.

The problem is that, having established this clear line between the practicing Catholics and the Catholics who are not active in the church, the story delivers no addition information on how this reality is reflected in other issues facing the church. To be blunt, there is no way to know — in this report — if this poll contains information that would help readers understand the choices facing Catholic leaders.

With that in mind, and as we all watch events unfold in Rome, let me remind GetReligion readers of this weblog’s handy typology of Catholic “voters,” which grew out of conversations with a veteran Catholic priest active in Beltway life. It looks something like this:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (perhaps even many Latinos) 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. These voters are regulars in the pews and may even fill leadership roles in their parishes. These are the Catholic voters that are really up for grabs, the true swing voters that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” 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.

Note that this grid draws lines INSIDE the mythical whole called “American Catholicism” and even among the church-going camp that is mentioned in the polls, including this Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As we all wait for news from Rome, please share some URLs — in the comments pages — for poll-driven stories that do a good job, or a bad job, of reflecting some of the dividing lines inside the “Catholic” camp.

Stay tuned.

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.

  • Julia

    There is another sub-set that you are missing. Reading the knowledgable Catholic writers and pundits on TV this past week and actually over the past several years, lots and lots of comments about the un-catechized and under-catechized. These folks don’t know enough about the Catholic faith to have intelligent objections. Most often they are not even aware of their lack in information. The comments boxes are full of these people opining away. Some of them start by saying “I was raised Catholic”, but it sounds like they went to a few CCD classes and that’s about it. But this category also contains many, many loyal Mass-goers. Over and over the knowledgable writers, pundits and even Cardinals point out the generation or two who have been under-catechized as one of the major problems now facing the church – that is a major focus of what is called “The New Evangelization”.

    I’ll see if I can find something on this subject which is scattered all over the place these days.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Reminds me of a professor teaching a theology class I had back in the early 80′s. He was talking about what he called “baptized, unevangelized members” and he had a habit of initializing things as he wrote on the chalkboard. We couldn’t help but crack up when he wrote out “B.U.M.” But doesn’t that pretty much get at the kind of person you’re talking about? So, tmatt, I propose a new category — “the BUMs.” (Yeah, I know it won’t go over well in the UK, but…)

    • midwestlady

      According to recent research, approximately 60% of Catholics don’t think that a personal relationship with Christ is possible. This includes many parish leaders, and shockingly some clergy and religious. Most Catholics don’t read scripture; an alarming percentage is afraid of it. Most Catholics don’t have the faintest idea what’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is what the New Evangelization is supposed to remedy. We have a huge evangelization job to do inside the Church.

  • Julia

    Essentially I’m talking about people who have idea what the “details” are.

  • Will

    And once again, failing to INSTITUTE something is a “ban”.
    And, as Fr. Longnecker will tell anyone, “married priests” and “female priests” is apples and oranges.

  • Julia

    oops “no idea”

    I was writing this while also watching the Cardinals march into the Sistine Chapel on TV.

  • Martha

    The kinds of opinions in that poll are the kinds of opinions expressed in this video.

    I can’t help thinking the guy at 1:32 has a future as a writer “On Faith” at the “Washington Times” – “I don’t think a pope should stay one religion” :-)

    • Martha

      And that would be the “Washington Post” as distinct from “The New York Times” – obviously, my crystal ball is picking up signals from the times to come when they’ve amalgamated :-)

    • Spencerian

      That Jimmy Kimmel bit is an excellent illustration of why polling and interviews fall flat. Such things entrust actual knowledge of the subject matter. Frankly, most of us aren’t that smart. However, people (especially those deep in social media such as Facebook) lately have conditioned themselves to use opinion as authority, rather than taking the time to read the actual resource or, at the least, have the humility to say “I don’t know.”

      As religions go, the processes and beliefs of the Catholic Church are easy to find. They have a “user’s guide” to everything doctrinal (the Catechism) and a list of Canon Law that talks of the administrative aspects we see today with the Conclave. Those resources are certainly smaller than, say, a major bill in the U.S. Congress. The story illustrates not only terrible attribution but also a complete ignorance as to how that religion works–which is more consistent than many. After reading a few lines, I imagined that the story continued with, “In other news, souls in Hell pray for sweeping reforms, starting with ice water machines.”

  • Julia

    Hysterical video.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It isn’t just the lack of knowledge about the Catholic Faith that skews the polls of practicing Catholics. It is that the vaccum of their knowledge is many times filled by misinformation, ignorant comments, or downright lies that fill large segments of the media.
    I watched some of MSNBC’s (as much as I could stomach) coverage of the opening of the conclave. It was filled with just about every nasty, insulting comment about the Church that I have heard over the years–with the most ignorant, hate-filled comments coming from two alleged (or maybe former) Catholics. And their comments made it clear their hate was clearly fueled by the Church not adopting a moral agenda on social issues that is to their liking. All the other news networks we get on our cable system had people explaining the ceremonies or translating the music and prayers into English.
    I can’t imagine a news network treating any other religion as rottenly as MSNBC treated the Catholic Faith and Church today.

  • Julia

    Ditto on MSNBC. Martin Basheer was just on with a piece on how Catholics want the church to change. He didn’t even try to hide his sneer.

  • John M.

    Why do so few Catholics understand their own religion? Is that news? Or just status quo?

    -John

    • Deacon Jim Stagg

      Good question, John M.
      Could it be they stopped learning when they left “Sunday School”?
      Could it be they had heretical teachers in “Sunday School” and were never corrected?
      Could it be that their parents signed them up for First Holy Communion classes, and then never darkened the church door again?
      Could it be that they might be rebellious, and want what current culture offers, rather than learn about Church teaching?
      Could it be their bishop, priest or deacon (when they do go) talks a lot about “love” and “acceptance” and “peace in the Mideast”, but rarely about doctrine or practice?
      Could it be they are just lazy, and really don’t want to spend the effort to learn anything?
      Could it be that they are “Catholics”, ’cause they can’t think of anything else to call themselves?
      Finally……How do you really know they are “Catholics”?

      • midwestlady

        All of the above, plus most of them don’t have a personal relationship with Christ and they don’t pray on a regular basis. For many Catholics, being Catholic is an ethnic or social label only. For some it’s a habit, an obligation only or a political stance only, although many people with these ideas have left since Vatican II, simply because ties that negative and superficial don’t hold anymore.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Status quo, John M. It has been ever since the end of Vatican II. The Council is not to blame, but those who implemented it are. Some things are changing, but it’s still an uphill battle. So it is not news that Catholics don’t know their faith.

      Well, at least to those in the know, it’s not news. I guess try telling that to the major media when they report on “devout Catholics” who want the Church to change her teaching on all of the culturally “relevant” issues (which mostly center on sex) or places like Quinnipiac who fail to sort out responses to a question on same-sex “marriage” based on Mass attendance and you’re going to get a blank stare back from them.

    • midwestlady

      That is the status quo, John.


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