As part of an ongoing national polling effort to track the views of American Catholics, Le Moyne College has released the findings of the latest Contemporary Catholic Trends (CCT) poll, in conjunction with Zogby International. The survey featured questions about the effect of the sex abuse scandal, terrorism, immigration, and the role of religion in public life. The Le Moyne College/Zogby International CCT poll has been conducted twice a year since 2001.
Approval Ratings for Religious Leaders and Responses to Abuse Scandal
In the fall of 2006 the Bishops’ approval rating exceeded 70% for the first time since the fall of 2001, suggesting a recovery after reduced approval when news of the sex abuse scandal broke in the spring of 2002. The March approval rating of 70% for the Bishops shows no change from last fall.
To add some context to this trend, respondents to the March survey were asked about the abuse scandal and the present state of the Church. Overall, 31% of respondents say they are aware of a publicly accused priest in their diocese, and these Catholics report less support for the U.S. Bishops. 61% of these Catholics said that the Bishops are doing a good job leading the Church, compared to 74% support among those who are unaware of an accusation (see following chart).
According to Dr. Matthew Loveland, CCT principal investigator, “the effect of the scandal should be considered diocese by diocese because the perceived relevance of the Bishops’ reaction depends on whether or not one knows about a locally accused priest. The emotional toll is great for all Catholics, but more difficult for those who can put a face on it.”
Overall support for other leaders is significantly higher than for the Bishops. A large majority (86%) strongly agrees (68%) or somewhat agrees (18%) that local pastors are doing a good job. Support for local pastors is similar for those aware of an accused priest and those who are not, at 85% for the prior and 87% for the latter. U.S. Catholics feel Pope Benedict XVI is doing a good job leading the church, with 86% strongly (47%) or somewhat (39%) agreeing.
Respondents were also asked how much attention they paid to national news, news about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and news about the Pope. 77% reported paying “a good deal” or “a lot” of attention to national news. U.S. Catholics follow news about religious leadership to a lesser degree: 53% of respondents saying they pay “a little” or “no attention” to news about the Pope, while 76% said the same about the USCCB. These findings suggest that Catholic attitudes are potentially influenced more by news media than religious leaders.
Asked if they felt the Church was stronger or weaker five years after the scandal became public, 23% of U.S. Catholics say the Church is stronger, 41% said the Church is weaker, and 31% felt that there has been no change. Attitudes differ for those who follow news of the USCCB; 32% of those who follow the USCCB feel the Church is weaker, while 44% of those who do not follow news about the bishops believe the Church is weaker. The Catholics most likely to feel the church is weaker are those who say they follow national news, but do not pay attention to news about the Bishops; 48% of this constituency feels the Church is weaker.
gain reflecting the importance of local events, attitudes also differ for those aware of an accused priest in the diocese. 48% of these Catholics say the Church is weaker, while only 38% of those unaware of an accused priest feel this way.
Catholic Attitudes about Terrorism
The March 2007 Contemporary Catholic Trends survey included questions about terrorism and U.S. policies since 9-11. Respondents were asked about several possible causes of terrorism. The strongest majorities believed that world economic problems (81%), religious intolerance (83%), world political instability (85%), and the history of conflict in the Middle East (88%) are causes of terrorism.
“It appears that American Catholics are aware that the causes of terrorism are complex and multifaceted. Rather than focus on a single factor, they grasp the necessity of viewing the issue of terrorism from a global perspective,” says Dr. Lisa McCartan, assistant professor of criminology at Le Moyne College.
The political differences that divide the country at large on these issues appear to be salient among U.S. Catholics as well. Overall, 57% of U.S. Catholics believe that “hatred of freedom” is a primary cause of terrorism. Some variation according to political identification is seen here, as 65% of those who identified as politically conservative endorsed “hatred of freedom” as a cause of terrorism, while only 48% of those who identified as liberal did so.
Regarding U.S. responses to 9-11, 63% of respondents believe the war in Iraq has increased the chances of a future terrorist attack in the United States, and 43% feel that the war was necessary as a part of the larger war against terrorism. At the same time, a majority of U.S. Catholics (56%) believes the Patriot Act has made the U.S. safer from a terrorist attack, and 71% said that stabilizing Iraq is necessary for the future safety of the United States. Again, political identification helps to explain differences of opinion, 86% of those identifying as conservative versus 57% of those identifying as liberal believe stabilizing Iraq will help ensure the future safety of the U.S.
Immigration and the Income Gap
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently made statements in support of immigration reform, and a majority of Catholic laity is in agreement. Respondents were asked if they believed the U.S. should begin a program to allow undocumented immigrants to earn permanent residency here; 55% of respondents agreed. Support for the policy change was highest (60%) among those who believe U.S. Bishops are doing a good job leading the Church, but lower (43%) among those who do not believe the Bishops are doing a good job.
President Bush recently spoke about the growing gap between the rich and poor in the U.S., and Catholic social teaching emphasizes justice for the poor. Asked if they believed the U.S. government should reduce income differences between rich and poor, Catholics are split. 50% said the government should reduce income differences, while 45% disagreed (5% were undecided). Again, those who believe the Bishops are doing a good job were somewhat more likely than those who do not to agree that income inequality should be addressed by the government (53% versus 42%).
Influence of Religion
The March CCT survey included two questions about the influence of religion. A strong majority of Catholics said religion provides guidance in their daily lives. 72% said religion provides quite a bit (34%) or a great deal (38%) of guidance in their personal life. A majority also believes that religion should be more influential in American public life. 59% saying religion does not currently have enough influence, while 23% of U.S. Catholics say religion has the right amount of influence, and 15% believes it has too much sway.
Those who say religion is influential in their own lives are more likely to say religion does not have enough influence in public life. Two thirds of these respondents (66%) say religion should have more influence on public life.
Zogby International conducted interviews of 1,522 Roman Catholics chosen nationwide from a Zogby compiled database of self-identified Roman Catholics from previous polls. All calls were made from Zogby International headquarters in Utica, N.Y., from March 14 th to March 16 th. The margin of error is +/- 2.6 percentage points. Data are weighted to more accurately reflect the Roman Catholic population by region, age, race, and gender. Margins of error are higher in sub groups.