Newsflash! Not all Catholics think alike!

Newsflash! Not all Catholics think alike! February 12, 2014

Hey! Did you know that a lot of Catholics actually disagree with church teachings?

To put it another way: Have you been ignoring all polls, and not talking to any Catholics, on the matter for the last quarter-century or more?

If so, let Univision and the Washington Post get you up to speed. A brand-spankin’-new poll reveals that “Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception,” according to a breathless article in the Post.

Well, OK, it’s more nuanced than that. The article says the poll shows divisions among Catholics worldwide and a challenge for their still-new Papa:

Between the developing world in Africa and Asia, which hews closely to doctrine on these issues, and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America, which strongly support practices that the church teaches are immoral.

The widespread disagreement with Catholic doctrine on abortion and contraception and the hemispheric chasm lay bare the challenge for Pope Francis’s year-old papacy and the unity it has engendered.

A companion piece in the Post lays out some of the numbers in big, colorful tiles, rather like the Windows 8 “Metro” desktop. Among the results:

  • 87 percent of Catholics say Pope Francis is doing a good or excellent job.
  • 99 percent of Ugandan Catholics oppose gay marriage, compared with 27 percent of Catholics in Spain.
  • 78 percent of Catholics support the use of contraception (but what kinds, they apparently weren’t asked).
  • 65 percent of Catholics say abortion should be allowed in some or all cases.
  • 30 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage.

It sounds pretty systematic, but the Post, to its credit, notes a weakness:

The poll, which was done by Bendixen & Amandi International for Univision, did not include Catholics everywhere. It focused on 12 countries across the continents with some of the world’s largest Catholic populations. The countries are home to more than six of 10 Catholics globally.

What I sought in vain was a comparison with some previous polls. Just before Pope John Paul II’s 1987 U.S. visit, a New York Times-CBS News poll indicated that most American Catholics respected the pope but disagreed with him on issues like divorce, birth control and women’s ordination. I.e., rather like the freshly minted poll.

The Post did note — around the last quarter of the story, long after the lede — that the Univision poll “mirrored ones that show U.S. Catholics support married priests, female priests, abortion and contraception.” It made no direct comparisons on findings, though.

The article uses a think-tanker for context, but not very well:

“This is a balancing act. They have to hold together two increasingly divergent constituencies. The church has lost its ability to dictate what people do,” said Ronald Inglehart, founding president of the World Values Survey, an ongoing global research project.

“Right now, the less-developed world is staying true to the old world values, but it’s gradually eroding even there. [Pope Francis] doesn’t want to lose the legitimacy of the more educated people,” he added.

So the church really wants to rewind history and “dictate?” And Catholic beliefs equal “old world values?” Kinda jaded there, Ronald. And he offers no evidence that such values are eroding in the so-called less developed world.

Better contexting here:

“Pope Francis appears particularly eager to engage with divisions around sex, marriage and gender and has called a rare ‘extraordinary synod’ this fall on ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family.’ For that, he has asked bishops to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things.”

In one interesting observation, the Post places Latin America somewhere between the more conservative Asians and Africans and the more liberal Americans and Europeans. Even there, the piece qualifies, stark differences can surface inside nations, depending on the topic.

You can also do your own contexting, of course: The Post provides a link to the Univision poll itself. At least the next time you read a poll, you can remember this one.

Illustration: Sigurd Decroos via

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7 responses to “Newsflash! Not all Catholics think alike!”

  1. One point of context missing from the stories (in so far I have read) is the understanding of how the Catholic Church handles its doctrines theologically versus how other Christian faiths do. In short, the Church isn’t a democracy, so the notion of a poll story shows defects of the journalists to cite this point. Doing so would also make the point of publishing the poll meaningless too, but there it is. A better story might add the Church’s reasons for not changing things and contrasting that to communities that have–and the ramifications to the number of their faith goers.

  2. Hilarious waste of resources….and time…for the WP and Univision. All they have to do is read this blog!

  3. I live in the Philippines, so I am always leery about polls, especially in countries where the elites might be the ones asked the questions (because asking folks in slums is too dangerous and rural folks too isolated to question), or in cultures where people politely agree with what they think you want to hear.

    How were the questions phrased? Were they in English/Spanish or in the local Languages? Were the polls in person, or by telephone. True, most middle class folks have cellphones, but even here the rural folks tend to share cellphones among the family.

    And one wonders if Univision’s links with Hillary Clinton has anything to do with a poll that could be used to push Catholic Hispanics to support her despite her pro abortion links. Does Univision do a lot of polling? Just wondering.

  4. Any time a poll says “abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances,” it drives me up a wall. That can mean anything from “abortion should be legal only to save the life of the mother” (that’s a circumstance, after all) to “partial-birth sex-selective abortions are hunky dory.” Heck, if people are mentally lumping together removing a fallopian tube during an ectopic pregnancy or performing a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman with uterine cancer, some of those 65% might not disagree with Church teaching at all. That may sound farfetched, but I’ve met people who were shocked to hear that the Church allows that sort of thing.

    • Yeah that drives me nuts too. Anyone with any sense of moral nuance at all who isn’t completely naive knows there are some situations where treating a life-threatening condition in a woman might mean needing to end her pregnancy, and that any law or principle that bans abortion has to deal with those situations. They get lumped in with glib pro-choicers like Mary Elizabeth Williams in polls like this, and that is neither fair nor accurate.

  5. Some mention should be made in media articles that we have no real valid polls from past eras about what Catholics think. There may have always been a gap between what the Church teaches and what Catholics think or believe. And while the tone of most media poll stories is that the Church must “ride with the tide” or drown–maybe the strength and success of the Church comes from swimming against the tide with courage and conviction–both qualities everyone outside the media usually admires and attracts people in spite of disagreements.

  6. Two observations:

    1) How did the pollsters determine the people polled were Catholics? Because they just say they are or was there any criteria – like regularity at Sunday Mass?

    2) “has called a rare ‘extraordinary synod’ this fall”
    Because the Catholic Church is not a democracy, did the reporter assume Catholics never have synods? Particularly since travel to Rome is not such a difficult thing these days, there have been a quite a few synods. The ones I mostly know of are the Synod on the Americas (where O’Malley and Bergoglio first became acquainted some years ago) and the Synods on the Eastern Catholic churches and on Africa.

    Everything in the church isn’t doctrine itself – there are also educational, pastoral and structural issues, for instance, that flow from church teaching and how it is lived out in the real world.

    As I understand it, the Vatican department that is preparing for the Synod this fall sent out a request to bishops all over the world asking what were the most pressing issues concerning the family in their geographic areas. This was for the purpose of setting the agenda for the meeting. Some bishops asked parishes for their input. It really wasn’t meant to be a poll; as in counting votes.