Not the least of which is on the part of the poll itself. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s religion reporters Michelle Boorstein and Peyton Craighill reported on a global survey conducted by Univision that showed a wide split among Catholics of different regions on adherence to church doctrine. Boorstein and Craighill argue that this demonstrates the uphill battle facing Pope Francis as he tries to unite the global Christian church, and his own:
Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception and are split on whether women and married men should become priests, according to a large new poll released Sunday and commissioned by the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision. On the topic of gay marriage, two-thirds of Catholics polled agree with church leaders.
Overall, however, the poll of more than 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries reveals a church dramatically divided: 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.
Among the findings:
●19 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 30 percent in the Latin American countries surveyed agree with church teaching that divorcees who remarry outside the church should not receive Communion, compared with 75 percent in the most Catholic African countries.
●30 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 36 percent in the United States agree with the church ban on female priests, compared with 80 percent in Africa and 76 percent in the Philippines, the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia.
●40 percent of Catholics in the United States oppose gay marriage, compared with 99 percent in Africa.
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.
Some of this, though, depends on definitions. Let’s look at the question asked on abortion, for instance, to understand the limitations of the results:
Do you think that abortions should be allowed in all cases, allowed in some cases for example when the life of the mother is in danger, or should it not be allowed at all?
That framing of the question is deeply deceptive, especially in the US and Europe. Most abortions in both places have nothing to do with the physical health of the mother; they are almost entirely elective, chosen for convenience. Even according to the abortion-friendly Guttmacher Institute, 74% of those choosing abortions cite convenience as a reason (non-exclusively), 48% cite economic issues, and 25% say they just don’t want people to know they’re pregnant. Only 12% mention their own health at all, let alone claim their lives are at risk. The most common answers in combination never even mention it. That framing does not deal with the reality of the abortion debate nor of the Catholic issues regarding it.
Even so, the striking figure here is the low number of Catholics who think abortion should be unrestricted. If, as the question suggests, abortion was restricted to only issues of the mother’s health and rape and incest, there may be considerable support for having just those limited options available as compared to the abortion-on-demand environment which currently dominates the US. Only 10% of American Catholics, and 20% of those in Europe, favor abortion on demand. That’s a little more positive than the poll’s top-line results and analysis indicate.
On the rest of the questions save one, the results show the challenge for Francis not so much on unity as for catechesis. The issue in the West seems to be a lack of education on Catholic teaching on issues such as contraception, marriage and the role of sexual expression in God’s plan, and the nature of the priesthood. The only issue that doesn’t relate to doctrine is whether priests should be married, which is a practice rather than a doctrine, and one limited to the Latin Rite (which is by far the Catholic Church’s largest). Interestingly, it’s also the one where considerable loyalty remains to the Church teaching, even in the West, although still a minority position.
The poll shows that Western Catholics want the church to allow divorced-and-remarried members to receive Communion. Recent comments by Francis about finding ways to minister to those in broken families sounded to some as though the Vatican would rethink doctrine on remarriage and adultery, but those comments were in the context of children from those marriages. John Allen and Lisa Wangsness asked Cardinal Sean O’Malley about the prospects for rewriting doctrine on these points, and the Boston prelate puts them at nil:
But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.
“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston and the closest American adviser to the popular new pontiff, O’Malley said says it would also be unrealistic to expect the church to consider allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, even though Francis himself once appeared to signal openness to the idea.
“The church needs to be faithful to the Gospel and to Christ’s teaching,” O’Malley said. “Sometimes that’s very difficult. We have to follow what Christ wants, and trust that what he asks of us is the best thing.”
The Vatican is gathering input on the issues highlighted by the poll, O’Malley tells Allen and Wangsness, but to find ways to improve education on doctrine, not to change doctrine to satisfy public sentiment:
O’Malley acknowledged that the church’s teachings on social issues are unpopular in contemporary Western societies. But he said the church cannot change its views to suit the times. Instead, he said, it must find new ways of explaining its teachings to a culture dominated by secular humanist values.
“The church has always tried to explain the faith,” he said.
Clearly, we need to explain it better, especially in the West.