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Survey says.

Last week, Univision released a survey of twelve thousand Catholics in a dozen countries across five continents. The idea occurred to them after the Vatican asked the world's bishops conferences to find out what their people think about a range of social issues and report back. But, as the Univision survey's executive summary notes, "the papal questionnaire is not an opinion-gathering instrument." True, it's not exactly reader-friendly (several dioceses chose to adapt it in order to make it more intelligible to the people whose views it was designed to gather). Nor were its results easy to compile. So Univision sponsored a large-scale survey that would adhere to contemporary standards of data collection, and allow us to say with a measure of confidence: This what the world's Catholics think now.

The results won't shock you. (The German and Swiss bishops certainly weren't surprised.) They represent "an alarming trend for the Vatican," because the "majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives," according to Bendixen and Amandi International--the communications firm that conducted the study. (It's been published a few ways: as an interactive feature, a slideshow, and an executive summary--which explains the survey's methodology.)

The country-by-country breakdown also holds few surprises. Generally speaking, the more developed a country is, the less likely its Catholics are to fully agree with certain church teachings. So, while a significant majority of U.S. Catholics (59 percent) say that women should be ordained priests, 81 percent of Ugandan Catholics disagree (the breakdown is similar on the question of married priests). Of course huge majorities of American Catholics (88 percent) have no problem with the use of artificial contraception. Ninety-four percent of French Catholics support the use of contraceptives--edging out Brazil's 93 percent to take the top spot in that category. And when it comes to divorce, the percentages line up similarly: 60 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that being divorced and remarried outside the church should not bar one from receiving Communion, while 72 percent of Catholics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo agree with that church teaching. On gay marriage, most Catholics agree with their bishops: about 40 percent of U.S. Catholics oppose it, compared with 99 percent of Catholic Africans.

The abortion results are more interesting.

Twenty-one percent of U.S. respondents agree that it should not be allowed at all. Sixty-six percent say abortion should be allowed in some cases. And just 10 percent say it should be allowed in all cases. Pollsters have been asking American Catholics about this for years, and have consistenly found much stronger support for keeping abortion legal in all cases--usually it hovers in the 20 to 30 percent range. Have U.S. Catholics changed their minds? Or was there a glitch in the survey?

For his part, Bill Donohue is not impressed. "The media," he says, are "choosing not to discuss" the survey's findings on abortion and gay marriage. He's not wrong that those aspects of the data have not been emphasized (at least not in accounts I've seen), but it's not as though major media outlets have totally ignored them. They've just tended to look at the global figures (this is what Univision itself has accentuated--and, given the scale of the survey, it's hard to blame them). For example, the Washington Post reported the broad opposition to gay marriage among the world's Catholics, and noted that 8 percent of respondents said abortion should be allowed in all cases.

But Donohue goes further, attempting to undermine the survey's methodology:

The survey of 12 nations yields some interesting results, but first a note on its methodology. Asking people to identify themselves as Catholic is not a sufficient condition for drawing conclusions: we need to know whether they regularly attend to the sacraments, or not. The survey made no effort to distinguish between practicing and non-practicing Catholics.

True, a survey of Catholics that failed to take account of their frequency of worship would hold less value than--wait, what's that? The poll did ask respondents about their Mass attendance? And it's mentioned in the report? On page three? Roll tape.

"Of the more than twelve thousand Catholics surveyed, roughly 30 percent described themselves as infrequent attendees, defined for the purposes of this study as those who attend services only a few times a well as those who never attend services." The survey instrument defines "frequently" as "every week / a few times a month." The report then notes that the data show "a clear divide" between those who go to Mass "on a regular basis" and those who don't. Granted the report could be clearer about how that divide shows up in the data, but, for example, look page eight of the executive summary. There you'll see that of all the Catholics surveyed, 72 percent of frequent churchgoers said that they support the use of contraceptives (90 percent of infrequent attenders agree). And on page twenty-one, you'll read that 60 percent of frequent churchgoers oppose ordaining women (32 percent of infrequent attenders have no problem with women priests).

That doesn't mean that reporting about the survey has been flawless. Much of the coverage has highlighted the aggregated margin of error for all respondents: .9. But "this is rather meaningless," according to Mark M. Gray, director of polls at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Rather, "it is the country-level margins of error that are more important," he told me. "These are about +/- 3 percentage points in each country."

What really concerns Gray about the Univision survey is not its margins of error, but the fact that the survey has so little to say about response rates and weighting. Often pollsters find that their respondents aren't sufficiently representative of the area they're surveying. Weighting allows them adjust answers to account for over- and under-represented groups. Let's say you're surveying a country whose population is 52-percent male, but nearly three-quarters of your respondents are men. You'd have to add weight to the women's answers and subtract it from men's. It's difficult to assess the accuracy of a poll without knowing how its responses were weighted.

But even if the report had been more transparent about weighting, its executive summary makes possibly unwarranted claims about the wider regions surveyed--Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia-Pacific, Africa. "But one simply cannot make generalizations when you have interviews in just a few countries in a region," Gray explained. "National culture really, really matters. The poll is only relevant to the countries where interviews were conducted."

What's more, Gray pointed out, the Mass attendance figures are "far too high," which is probably the "result of social-desirability" bias. This is always an issue with polling--and Mass attendance is often overreported, but "usually not this high," according to Gray. Still, he concluded, apart from that, Univision's "results are not too out of line with existing, recent data."

Perhaps an enterprising bishop might sneak a copy in when he travels to Rome in October to share his own results with Pope Francis.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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What is this Univision that did the survey?  All I find at Wikipedia is a TV channel, and at Google there is no organization that seems to fit the bill.

About the 30 percent of approval of 100 perchent choice by Catholics -- we know the question in English, but how was it stated in all these other languages?  Was it unambiguous in all of them? 

Oops == I misread the American Catholic abortion figure -- 10 percent were pro choice for all cases.  That's still high, I think, though some Catholics  are pro-choice as a prudential matter, not as a moral matter.

The Pew Forum ... "Large percentages of white mainline Protestants (76%), black Protestants (65%) and white Catholics (63%) say the ruling [Roe v Wade] should not be overturned."


Grant, are you seriously shocked by the numbers thinking Roe v Wade shoudn't be overturned in the Pew study? Or kidding?

I believe that abortion is always evil and almost always grievously immoral. But as for overturning Roe,  Hmm. I could see a double race to the bottom by the states. In one set of states, the ultimate goal of lawmakers would be a ban on women talking to any doctor during the first nine months of pregnancy. Simultaneously, the chambers of commerce in destination states would be elbowing each other to be the first state to authorize abortion into the tenth month of pregnancy. And seven more devils would come in to replace the first.

It's hard to convey nuance when a poll asks For or Against questions. If I have to say Yes or No to Roe, the answer will remain the same for me but how I answer may change depending on my mood, weather conditions, what I think the questioner is getting at, and the last thing I read on the subject. I do not think I am alone in having that conflict -- and I could go on and on about other things that may make either a Yes or No contingent to myself and others. So the Pew numbers leave me unsurprised.

I'm kidding. I'm not sure how useful it is to ask straight up whether Roe should be overturned.

What is really interesting to me is not so much the differences among Catholics in any given country but the regional differences.  I only read some summaries but it would be interesting to see differences by education and income for example.  I have always thought it a bit ironic that the Catholic Church has been a significant contributor to education, but generally speaking, those with more education are less likely to accept its teachings, especially in the arena of sexual mores. 

On th abortion question, specifically Roe v Wade, I think there is a distinction that many people between legally banning abortion and the act of having one.  I think most people, Catholic or not, can imagine a situation where it would be the best of bad alternatives.  We might disagree on what those situations might be, but I think the vast majority deep down subscribe to the idea that abortion should be legal, safe and rare. I read somewhere that support for legal abortions increases when we have a "pro-life" candidate in the White House and wanes when the President is "pro-choice," to use the standard terms.  That suggests that while people do not like abortion, neither do they want to see it totally banned, again largely because they can imagine a siuation where it is the right alternative.    

There is also a semantic problem with the word "abortion".  As I see it, the organism in the first week is not a person at all, so I think to "abort" it in the medical sense is not morally objectionable.  

The poll only confirms that persons who identify as members of the " Catholic Church" throughout the world  have widespread differences of opinion based on many influences. Big news.. but appreciated nevertheless in seeing the stats. How the bishop and Pope Francis interpret and deal with this is a mystery unfolding.

Re: abortion - over and over,,,I like Tom Blackburn's response and have often tried to ask the question,"If not Roe, what national law do you propose to replace it? And how is it enforced?"

If anyone can steer me to a piece of legislation that would win national support that is enforceable, I would appreciate it.


The poll only confirms that persons who identify as members of the " Catholic Church" throughout the world  have widespread differences of opinion based on many influences. Big news.. but appreciated nevertheless in seeing the stats. How the bishop and Pope Francis interpret and deal with this is a mystery unfolding.

Re: abortion - over and over,,,I like Tom Blackburn's response and have often tried to ask the question,"If not Roe, what national law do you propose to replace it? And how is it enforced?"

If anyone can steer me to a piece of legislation that would win national support that is enforceable, I would appreciate it.


The differences in opinions between people in the north/west and people in the global south has already taken its toll on the Anglican Communion ... GAFCON.

I agree that many polls have some biases or flaws that need some type of statistical adjustment, as Mark Gray pointed out. The finding and conclusion about the percent of Catholic are considered frequent Mass attendees (reported at about 70%) is far beyond any figures I have ever read, in particular U.S. Mass attendance. The number should be more like 30% or less. 

The overall conclusions, as Mark Gray pointed out, is not far from other surveys on the issues of the use of contraceptives and whether the Eucharist (and I assume the sacrament of reconciliation) should ba availabel to divorced and remarried Catholics.

The issue of abortion is much more complex and questions must be carefully framed if you want to discern the opinions of world-wide Catholics. For example, most Catholics are against abortion on demand, but would agree that it can be morally permitted in certain cases (e.g., the Phoenix case). The 66% of Catholcs that said that abortion should be allowed in some cases is likey not far from the truth.

The 88% of American Catholics who agree that contraception should be morally permitted is about right. 

A equally important issue not asked, nor surveyed as part of the Synod of Bishops, is what priests think. In a 2002 LA Times Poll of U.S. Priests, consider the percentage of all priest and younger priests who say it is seldom or never a sin:

1. 43% (of all priests) to use condoms as a protection against AIDS. 38% of younger priests ordained less than 21 years had the same belief.
2. 40% to use artificial methods of birth control for married couples. 31% of younger priests ordained less than 21 years had the same belief.

As for women priests, 46% of all priests and 38% of younger priests favor the ordination of women as priest.

It would be interesting to know the opinions of priests worldwide on the family issues under consideration for the 2013 Synod on the Family. This has a major influence of Catholic opinion, and these facts must be known as well for they are part of the state of the question.

Of course, the most important issue is how the bishops will both interpret and use these statistics. 



All interesting, Micahel, and of course those 2002 statistics do not represent the last 10 years of JPII clergy and, more importantly, the dying off of Vatican II era clergy... In my diocese, I'd stack the 65-85 year old as generally much more accpting than the 25-45s, but that is only a hunch.

Grant: Did the survey ask people specifically if they thought abortion should "be allowed" in all cases or did it ask whether it should "be legal" in all cases. This seems like an important distinction, as one could argue that abortion is not morally licit in all cases (or any, for that matter), but that it should be legally permited.

The 2002 survey of priests included those that were ordained 21 years or less. This means that this cohort of young priests are in fact JP II clergy (ordained from 1981-2002). 

I think you might have confused this priest survey with a lay survey. Nevertheless, a 2007 survey of lay Catholics by Dean Hogue of the Catholic University of America (now deceased) showed the following regarding the percent of Catholics saying it is always morally wrong:

> To engage in homosexual acts: 44% (all), 37% (ages 18-39), 40% (ages 40-62), and 69% (age 63+)

> To terminate pregnancy by abortion: 39% (all), 37% (ages 18-39), 34% (ages 40-62), 55% (ages 63+)

> To use condoms or birth control pills: 11% (all), 10% (ages 18-39), 8% (ages 40-62), 25% (ages 63+)

While there is a clear difference among age cohorts, the fact that only 55% of Catholics ages 63 and older believe it is always morally wrong to terminate a pregnancy by abortion means that a staggering 45% do not. There is also not a materially significant difference on the issue of contraception, where only 25% of Catholics ages 63 and older believe it is always morally wrong to use condoms and birth control pills, compared to 10% for the youngest cohort.




I wonder how many de facto dissenting priests will say what they really think about these matters in their responses to the Pope's recent survery.  I doubt that we will ever know.

I wonder how many de facto dissenting priests will say what they really think about these matters in their responses to the Pope's recent survery.  I doubt that we will ever know.

I read through the preliminary report put out by the Swiss Bishops' Conference on its webpage

(it's also available in German) and it has some interesting things to say. One is that most of the 25,000 respondents appear to have learned of the questionnaire through parish bulletins and other church publications, and so are presumably church-going Catholics. That fact, however, does not prevent them from being highly critical of church teachings on marriage and sexuality. Ninety percent find the denial of the Eucharist to divorced and remarried people incomprehensible and lacking in Christian charity. Not surprisingly, "the ban on artificial methods of contraception is far removed from the practice and ideas of the great majority of Catholics." Sixtypercent favor church recognition and blessing of homosexual couples, though here the bishops notice a real polarization since a significant, if smaller, percentage of respondents are strongly opposed. Thus, the report notes that the bishops are faced with a real pastoral problem, and "have the difficult task of finding a solution that takes into account these different views while meeting the pastoral needs of homosexual couples for whom it is important to have recognition and a religious dimension in their relationship."

In fact the whole thrust of the document has a pastoral slant to it -- here are many Catholics who understand, but reject, Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality. That poses a problem for the bishops. What should their response be? Presumably it is not simply to condemn them as cafeteria Catholics, dissenters, or anything of that sort; it should be a pastoral response rather than a minatory one.

We'll see. But it appears to be a rather different way of engaging these questions than many of us are familiar with in our country. How many of you saw any mention of the Vatican questionnaire in your parish bulletins or diocesan papers? or heard a parish priest address the subject? or is aware of any attempt made by your bishop to consult members of the laity before sending his answers in to Rome?
I've not heard of any such in my diocese. But maybe we're different from other dioceses.

The report was put out by the Swiss Institute of Pastoral Sociology (SPI ). a Church-supported research institute in St. Gallen.

My parish bulletin mentioned the survey.  But my bishop (Aymond of New Orleans) is known as a very good listener.

My parish in San Diego did not mention the survey. I asked my parish priest about it twice. All he said was that the Bishop or diocese was handling it. I did not want to get into a lenghtly debate with him because I knew he could do nothing. It is anyone's guess how anyone in the diocesian office could possibly answer the many specific questions about the practices and opinions of Caholic parishioners if not by survey. I also have heard that the diocese of Los Angeles did not give any parishioner or parish the opportunity to answer a formal questionaire.  I do know that some parishes in other diocese posted a questionaire that was designed to make the questions clear and easy to answer...but these were one-off parishes and there is much inconsistency in how such answers were being collected among parishes and dioceses across the U.S. 

The good news is that some organizations have conducted a world-wide survey and the findings are being sent to the Vatican. No one truly knows if the data reflects reality or how the bishops will interpret the findings or what they will do about the profound non-reception.



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