October 27, 2011 // Uncategorized

Survey shows Catholic shift on church leadership, authority issues

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholics favor a variety of responses to the priest shortage but give less credence to official church teachings than they formerly did, according to the results of a survey commissioned by National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

At least two-thirds of the respondents supported each of a number of alternatives — priest-sharing, parish mergers, bringing in priests from another country, cutting the number of weekend Masses, having a deacon or layperson run the parish, and occasionally substituting Mass with a communion service.

A growing majority — 58 percent, compared to 53 percent six years ago — also said “most priests don’t expect the laity to be leaders, just followers.” And at least three-quarters of the respondents agreed that laypeople had the right to decide how parish money should be spent, select their new pastor and decide on parish closings.

It was the fifth such survey commissioned by the newspaper since 1987 and the first since 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI succeeded Blessed John Paul II as pope.

Details of the survey, “Catholics in America,” were published in the newspaper’s Oct. 28 issue and released at a news conference Oct. 24 at the National Press Club in Washington.

A majority of respondents for the first time said individuals had the final say in what is right or wrong in the areas of abortion, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. A growing majority said the same about contraception, and 47 percent agreed on the subject of divorce and remarriage, up from 42 percent. A minority held that both individuals and church leaders had the final say in these five matters, while a smaller minority said church leaders alone should have the final say.

One number that climbed substantially from the 2005 survey was the percentage who said one could be a good Catholic without giving to the poor. In 2005, that percentage was 44 percent; in 2011, the figure jumped to 60 percent.

“This shift may be evidence of a loosening of Catholics’ felt obligations to the poor. But it may also reflect other factors,” said Michelle Dillon, who chairs the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire, in an essay accompanying the survey findings. “It may, for example, reflect the fact that Catholics, like many Americans, have experienced economic losses since the recession hit in 2008 and have responded to the recession, in part, by giving less priority to the poor as they themselves struggle to make ends meet.”

Similarly, 58 percent felt it important to give time or money to their parish, down from 71 percent six years ago, which Dillon said may also be attributable to the recession.

In assessing the clergy sexual abuse scandal of the past decade, 83 percent agreed that it had hurt church leaders’ political credibility either “a great deal” or “somewhat,” and 77 percent said it had likewise “hurt priests’ ability to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of their parishioners,” with strong majorities cutting across all demographic groups agreeing with the statements. But they assessed their own bishop’s handling of the crisis in a “somewhat more positive” manner than the U.S. bishops overall, most so among weekly Mass attendees, said a survey team report.

In the 2011 survey, 63 percent of Catholics are white, compared to 86 percent at the time of the 1987 survey; 54 percent are married, compared to 62 percent in 1987; 34 percent are 55 or over, compared to 27 percent, and only 10 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to 17 percent a generation ago.

The survey was taken by Knowledge Networks for NCR. The first four surveys had been conducted by Gallup, but NCR found Gallup’s fee too high to do a survey with a representative number of Hispanic Catholics. Hispanics now account for 32 percent of all Catholics, compared to an estimated 10 percent in 1987.

Because the information was gleaned from self-administered online surveys instead of phone interviews as in the past, “care must be exercised when interpreting change over time,” the survey team said.

The survey interviewed 1,442 Catholics, including an oversampling of Hispanics and young people under age 32. The results were adjusted to account for the oversampling. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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