These figures reveal the usual challenges confronting American Catholicism — a flock divided, a pope who’s less popular than his charismatic predecessor, a sizable pool of cradle Catholics alienated from the faith’s tenets and disappointed with its leadership. And because the survey covers self-identified Catholics, it may not be picking up on the depth of post-sex scandal disillusionment among people (millenials, especially) who used to identify with the Roman Church, but no longer.
However, the Pew figures also suggest that there may be more resilience and rigor in American Catholic belief than the narrative of a church all-but-undone by individualism and modernity would suggest. Of course “maintain the traditional teachings” is a capacious phrase, and of course pontifical approval ratings should be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s still striking that most churchgoing Catholics and a large minority of more infrequent attenders identify (or at least want their pontiff to identify) more with tradition than with radical reform, and it’s still noteworthy that Pope Benedict is viewed favorably by a huge majority of his flock despite all all the awful press he’s received.
These numbers point, I think, to the limits of defining Catholic identity in binary terms — pitting orthodox believers against “cafeteria Catholics” (as conservatives tend to do) or a silent majority of progressive-minded Catholics against a rump of traditionalists and a hidebound hierarchy (the frame that liberals favor).