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Polling Run Amok

Am I the only one who thinks running polls on what American Catholics think the next Pope should say about various sex-and-gender issues is a bit weird? The idea that that could be relevant seems to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the Church hierarchy in so many different ways to be a bit hard to comprehend. The whole point of the set-up is that public opinion doesn't matter in this way. And even if the Cardinals are going to worry about what their flock thinks, why should they care in particular about what Americans think. There are a whole lot of Catholics out there in the wide world.

April 4, 2005 | Permalink


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» Public Opinion and the New Pope from PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science
I agree with Matthew Yglesias: there is an odd obsession with many in the media and the idea that public opinion is somehow relevant to the question of what the new Pope should do (or how an existing Pope should behave). In the past everytime the P... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 4, 2005 12:44:19 PM

» Stop The Presses from Pseudo-Polymath
Never would have thunk it, but I agree. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 4, 2005 1:04:23 PM

» Highly intelligent and insightful folks who agree with me from Sean Gleeson
For the past couple of days, I've done little besides excoriate the press for its clueless coverage of the late pope and the Church. Today, for a bit of a change, I'm linking to some very astute observers around the nation, who excoriate the press for ... [Read More]

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» Follow the money from War Liberal
I didn't say anything about the passing of Pope John Paul II because I didn't know what to say other than mocking the TV coverage. (CNN: Pope not dead yet!) Simply put, this was a great man, one of the... [Read More]

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» Polls and the Magisterium from ProfessorBainbridge.com
Matt Yglesias:Am I the only one who thinks running polls on what American Catholics think the next Pope should say about various sex-and-gender issues is a bit weird? The idea that that could be relevant seems to misunderstand the nature [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 4, 2005 3:33:27 PM

» Sensible Mom & The AP Poll About Changes In Catholic Church from Daly Thoughts
Sensible Mom tickled my mailbox with this: Dear Poll Guru, I researched this poll and found that Catholics are ridiculously under-represented: "The latest AP poll that claims "most Americans, and Catholics, want to see changes in Church" ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 5, 2005 7:14:28 AM

» Matthew Yglesias gets it right on polls and Americ from Thumos Blog
I may not see eye-to-eye with Yglesias about much, but he hit it dead on in this post: "Am I the only one who thinks running polls on what American Catholics think the next Pope should say about various sex-and-gender issues is a bit weird? The i... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 5, 2005 9:08:52 PM


Chill out dude. It's merely a "compare and contrast" sort of thing. There was a time when the idea that Catholics explicitly took their marching orders from the Pope was not at all unusual. Of late (i.e. over the past few decades), there's been a lot of attempts to gather evidence to the contrary. If the poll shows results that differ significantly with the views of the next Pope, it'll be another in a long line of "American Catholics think for themselves" articles.

Furthermore, as Catholics are a significant swing vote in the American electorate, seeing what their views are on a string of cultural issues is useful. In this sense, asking them "What should the Pope say about X" is proxy for asking them "Absent influence from the church heirarchy, what do you think about X".

Posted by: WillieStyle | Apr 4, 2005 10:33:04 AM

As a former Catholic, I find it interesting that American Catholics are drifting further from the Vatican. This poll will probably not influence the selection of the next pope, but it puts the American cardinals and bishops on notice that the church is becoming more irrelevant to thier members. These polls also tell the public and our politicians that church leaders do not really speak for the rank and file members.

Posted by: marvyt | Apr 4, 2005 10:34:39 AM

One of the things I always liked about the Catholic Church is that it's the rare institution that doesn't give a shit what Americans think. Or what anyone who's alive now thinks, for that matter.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Apr 4, 2005 10:40:25 AM

These polls should be considered as an example of a wider phenomenon - the influence of public opinion in non-democratic organisations. By specifying what public opinion would (might) want if there was a vote, pressure is put on unelected organisations to respond. "The whole point of the set-up is that public opinion doesn't matter in this way." may be right in theory, but in practice all the unaccountable public authorities (Supreme Courts, the incomplete franchise Parliaments of 19th Britain, monarchs of all stripes including in Ancient Rome) are profoundly influenced by public opinion, especially when articulated, despite their apparent insulation.

Posted by: Otto | Apr 4, 2005 10:40:33 AM

Matt, I don't think this poll has anything to do with a belief that American Catholics' opinions will affect the selection of the next pope. It strikes me more as an attempt to see how close ACs' opinions are to the Vatican, and to JP2, which seems to have self-evident value. We're always interested in how American Catholics feel on social issues.

Posted by: ispivey | Apr 4, 2005 10:51:08 AM

The real reason this poll was done is that CNN employs a group of people whose job it is to do polls. These people come to work every day and do polls. The Pope died. So the polling people thought, hey!, let’s do a poll about what U.S. Catholics think the new Pope should do! Not that the Catholic God gives a hoot what people think about anything, except when he's handing out rewards or, His favorite, punishments.

Posted by: ostap | Apr 4, 2005 11:29:08 AM

I hear all the time from my Catholic in-laws that it's a wonderful thing that the Church is not a democracy. On one level it's true. They are less subject to the whims of popular upheaval - either to the left on matters of abortion or to the right on the anti-science or pro-war and death penalty crusade. But there is a price the Church pays for being non-democratic. The child-sex scandal is a perfect example of this price. The arrogance of authority without accountability to the people allowed higher-ups to poo-poo the whole problem and treat it like it doesn't matter. No democratic organization would survive the child-sex scandal of the Church. No democratic organization would coddle a Cardinal Law. And that's not a feather in the Church's cap.

Posted by: Elrod | Apr 4, 2005 11:29:27 AM

"The idea that that could be relevant seems to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the Church hierarchy in so many different ways to be a bit hard to comprehend."

This may be hard for you to believe, but many Catholics, including highly-placed Catholics, disagree with the idea that "my-way-or-the-highway" authoritarianism is inherently the "nature and purpose of the Church hierarchy." Many of them point out that the papal dictatorship characteristic of JPII's papacy and most other modern papal reigns is, in fact, a creation of the modern age. Others might point out that, in the past, bishops were often elected, or chosen by local authorities, rather than appointed by Rome.

It's certainly true that the modern church is profoundly centralized and conservative. But, as so often happens, I'm struck by the sight of non-Catholic liberals taking the right-wing side in an ongoing controversy inside the Church. It's as if European liberals were to take the position that of course Tom DeLay should be allowed to bully judges, because that's inherent to the "nature and purpose" of American governance.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden | Apr 4, 2005 11:31:11 AM

I think the poll demonstrates one thing emphatically: American Catholics are a bunch of spoiled selfish brats.
Take the example of divorce vs abortion. The bible is quite clear on divorce being wrong. Yet we get this: "Respondents were split on the question of divorce. Asked whether the next pontiff, unlike John Paul, should allow Catholics to divorce and remarry, 49 percent said yes, while 48 percent said no." Yet even though traditionally there has been a variety of Catholic opinion on whether or not life begins at conception we get the following: "A majority of U.S. Catholics polled support John Paul's unwavering stance against abortion rights. Asked whether the next pope should have a less strict policy, 59 percent said no, while 37 percent answered yes." Why do we get these 2 results? Because Catholics are thinking selfishly and divorce affects them more directly than abortion does. Divorced Catholics want to live under the delusion they're still good Catholics.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Apr 4, 2005 11:33:06 AM

Did they ask about the death penalty? JPII's stance on the death penalty was almost as staunch as that on abortion but I bet most Catholics disagree with him on that. And how about the war in Iraq?

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 4, 2005 11:42:31 AM

Patrick Nielsen Hayden: fascinating stuff! Can you tell us a bit more? What do you mean by the modern age? (Is it post-enlightenment modernity?) Any names of interesting Catholic figures to read for a bit more information? I'm very intrigued.

Posted by: pedro | Apr 4, 2005 12:13:53 PM

Matt, everytime you post on religion, you seem to assume that the statements and representations of conservative political operatives coming from that religion are somehow representative and all-encompassing of the whole. They're not... this is the second post in a few days where you seemed to think that Conservative representations of Christian theology are the only ones that exist. It's wierd and obviously contradicted by statements and polling you've encountered, so think it through a little.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Apr 4, 2005 12:41:58 PM

MDtoMN: You say it to Matt, but I'm listening too. I also have a tendency to take conservative representations of Christian theology at face value, and I'm aware of how utterly unhelpful that attitude can be. Mea culpa.

Posted by: pedro | Apr 4, 2005 12:45:03 PM

You miss an important dimension - money. American Catholics are
only a small fraction of the worldwide total, but they represent
a much larger fraction of the Church's wealth and revenue.
If the Church gets too far out of step with the views of American
Catholics, then it risks losing a lot of money (and thus also
power and influence): to some extent this has already been
happening as a result of the many sex abuse scandals.

It may be more fruitful to compare the Catholic church to a
multinational corporation, rather than a democratic state. As in
a corporation, the head is chosen by a small in-group, and once
chosen, has broad autocratic powers to set policy and appoint
lower-level management. As in most multinationals, the CEO is
usually chosen from the home country, even if the big revenue
and growth is elsewhere. And most decisions are taken in private.
From John Paul II's obituaries, I note also that one of his
major goals was to bring the Orthodox churches back under the
nominal sovereignty of the Pope - he didn't succeed in this, but
it seems strikingly similar to the mania for huge corporate

I wouldn't want to push this analogy too far - many of John Paul's
actions, in particular the apology for Catholic anti-semitism,
were simply doing the right thing, without any hidden agenda.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 4, 2005 12:45:38 PM

To clarify a little -
It's clear that many people in the Left and/or Democratic Party are only somewhat represented by the "face" and leadership of the Democratic Party for a number of institutional reasons. When one discusses Catholics as though all of them must view the Church Heirarchy the way some of their leaders do, one is similar to a person suggesting that Democrats all view the Democratic leadership the way they view themselves. When one discusses christian theology in terms of a simplistic eschatology ripped from Chick tracts, one is similar to a person suggesting that all Leftists/Democrats are Pacifists. It's annoying.

Posted by: MdtoMN | Apr 4, 2005 12:47:07 PM

Only the non- and never-religious can be so rigorously logical about religious belief. As a former Catholic (yes, I know the joke about the former hunchback), I can tell you that the vast majority of Catholics, like the vast majority of adherents to most religions I know anything about, are shockingly ignorant of the official teachings of their own religions. Many Christians would be hard-pressed if given a multiple-choice test, to tell the difference between Catholic and Episcopalian or Presbyterian doctrine on all but a handful of issues that they could work out, a la Kaplan prep-test techniques without actual subject-matter knowledge.
Leaving aside organizational, ceremonial, and dietary issues, most of us in the Judeo-Christian heritage believe an almost indistinguishable mass of generic niceness that the late Richard Mitchell referred to as "basic minimum Christianism." And outside of a small but growing group of fundamentalists, any differences in belief will vary randomly among denominations.
In the long run, a religion's beliefs will be what the religion's adherents say they are. And they will not, in the long run, seriously inconvenience the flock. American and Western European Catholics are severely inconvenienced by a number of specific church teachings. Eventually, either the teachings will change or the church's center of gravity will shift to the third world while first-world Catholics end up in some other organization. (A change in first-world cafeteria Catholicism does not seem likely.) There are tremendous pressures in both directions, and it remains to be seen which scenario will unfold. But both are on the table. Neither is excluded just because the powers-that-be are, for the moment, holding firm on current teaching.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Apr 4, 2005 1:04:46 PM

It is interesting to know what people think about non-democratic institutions. I would like to know what people think in Cuba, for instance. It won't tell you what will happen tommorrow but could tell you what will happen 20 years from now.

Posted by: joe o | Apr 4, 2005 1:08:25 PM

Re: The whole point of the set-up is that public opinion doesn't matter in this way.

In ancient Christendom, and still to this day in Eastern Christianity, there is a notion of something called the “sensum fidelium”, meaning more or less “What the Faithful think.” If a doctrine is formulated by the bishops that is not well received by the Church at large this is supposed to be an indication that the doctrine is flawed. In Roman Catholicism, this has been superceded by the Papal infallibility doctrine, and by the general notion that the Church has some sort of infallible teaching authority. I might point out however the rather strenuous objections that the 19th cnetury popes had to “modernism “(by which they meant things like democracy, religious freedom and even some technological innovations) was pretty much put to rest at Vatican II precisely because rather few people, especially in America and western Europe, were wlling to accept this archaic attitude.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 4, 2005 1:28:52 PM

as a liberal catholic, i don't specifically want the church to become a democratic or majoritarian institution - i want it to become a relentlessly self-critical institution, that's constantly pushing itself to more clearly adhere to the teachings of Jesus. i also want it to be a church that recognizes that we all have to struggle to find out what God wants us to do, and none of us have all the answers (e.g. Jesus taught by way of parables & metaphors, rather than commandments & directives - so how could He have wanted the church to set up litmus tests like the US bishops' statement that abortion is the one over-riding issue of faith for catholics?). i want the church to recognize that there are many and varied paths to God, and treat everyone with respect who has the courage to try to find one. (i probably sound more like a unitarian than a catholic, but maybe it's an indicator of how far the church has gone down the road of philistinism that i feel like i have to pull so hard in the opposite direction.)

probably like a lot of catholics who read this blog, i'm torn right now because i think the Pope modeled those values in a lot of ways, but he didn't instill them in the church hierarchy - in fact i think the church became a lot more insular and philistinic on his watch rather than less so, at least in the US. so i've always admired him, while at the same time feeling a lot of regret.

Posted by: Tom | Apr 4, 2005 2:12:10 PM

Although I am not a Catholic myself, I was raised in a Catholic family, and have from time to time had to learn some of this stuff - if only so I could argue with my relatives. As I understand it, there is more scope in Catholic teachings than Matt imagines for some influence of lay believers on the direction of Church doctrine. That doesn't mean it simply responds to poll results; but the expressed opinions of the faithful are not without weight, either from a theological or practical point of view.

The crucial concept here is the magisterium - the teaching authority of the church. The bishops in communion with the pope are said to have been entrusted with the responsibility and authority to interpret the tradition. Scripture and prior doctinal statements play a grounding role, and must be accommodated - particularly those few for which the pope has claimed infallibility. But the undertanding of the tradition and the elaboration of it are supposed to be continually improved by guidance from the Holy Spirit, and that guidance comes not just to bishops but to the whole body of the Church. The Church is not identical to its heirarchy - it is rather a "body" composed of all the faithful, within which different members have different obligations. The magisterium is thus supposed to articluate the understanding of "the church", and that has allowed for some lively debate and diversity of opinion.

The teachings also give weight to the sensus fidei - the instinctive undertsanding of the faith possed by all the faithful and revealed through the universal practice of the Church. Should a basically universal consensus on some matter emerge throughout the whole church, the teaching authority is supposes to take that into account. But I don't know how universal "universal" is.

As I understand it then, he idea is supposed to be that the perfected understanding of the faith lies in the future, not in the past. It is not to be thought of as chiseled in stone somewhere - at least not in its fullness. The magisterium has an elaborative and interpretive responsibility that goes beyond the continual reiteration of things it has already said. Reason and deduction play a role, but the making explicit of what is implicit in the tradition it is not solely a matter of futher logical deduction from existing doctrines combined with improved knowledge of matters of fact. There is also a matter of giving integrity to conflicting, sometimes vague, prior teachings and harmonizing these with the actual practice of the church, and with moral insights which may be delivered from the progress of human history.

Also, as a purely political matter, the Catholic church is forced to pay some attention to ordinary people. It has an ecumenical ambition - the reunification of all Christians. It certainly does have to listen to people, and respond to them in some way, to achieve this reponsibility. The Church hierarchy has a pastoral duty. It cannot guide the faithful without listening to their concerns, worries and needs and attempting to respond to them. The Catholic Church cannot simply ignore the dissatisfactions of American Catholics. It regards the Reformation as a terrible tragedy in the history of Christianity, and doesn't want a repeat of experience that could result in schismatic separation from Rome of an American Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has a more diverse and flexible tradition than many present it to be. Sometimes it moves in very authoritarian diretions, and attempts to "lay down the law" and reign in its liberals. Other times it has responded to pressure from below, admitted errors, repudiated some past statements and modified doctrine in significant ways in a more "democratic" manner. Certainly, for example, the Catholic church has modified its previous stands on human rights, economic justice and religious liberty fairly significantly in recent decades, as well as it's understanding of its relationship to other religious communities.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 4, 2005 2:42:46 PM

>Also, as a purely political matter, the Catholic church is forced to pay some attention to ordinary people

And of course, also an economic matter. If people disagreed
strongly enough with the Church, they would stop giving money
and the whole enterprise would collapse. I'm not sure on the
worldwide figures, but it's probably somewhere over $100B/year ?
Admittedly much/most of that gets recycled locally for good uses
such as schools, hospitals, social care. I'm not necessarily
saying it's a *bad* organization - but it's definitely a *huge*
organization with enormous revenues and expenses.

Here in Boston, the epicenter of the sex abuse scandals, the
church has taken a big financial hit both from lawsuit settlements
and a drop in donations, and has resorted to selling off valuable
land and closing down a number of churches. If that pattern is
repeated elsewhere, the next Pope will have big problems to deal

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 4, 2005 2:55:18 PM

I don't think the Church is going to do what anyone wants it to do because I don't think most people understand what the Church was created to do. The Church's mission is, in a few words, "go and make disciples of all peoples." Take the Word of God and teach people how to follow the faith. A lot of people find shelter in the Old Testament because it gives specific examples, many of which serve their paleolithic ends. But the New Testament is what makes Christianity unlike other major faiths. And in the New Testament, Jesus basically flips the script on the people who made a body of law out of the Old Testatment. Gone are the arbitrarily imposed punishments for adultery, abusing pregnant women, and other dishonorable acts. In their place: (1) Love one another; (2) love thy neighbor as thyself. It is beyond folly to expect a church given such a generalistic mandate to take solid ideological positions on every political issue. This, I think, is what CNN wants American Catholics to do, and it is also to a lesser extent what American Catholics want the Church to do. Both will be disappointed, but only CNN can make it into a news story.

Posted by: diddy | Apr 4, 2005 4:15:32 PM

Joe o has got it right, I think: in determining who the next pope will be, it doesn't "matter" what American Catholics think (or, who knows, per Dan Kervick, perhaps it does?) - but that ISN'T THE POINT OF THE POLL. Moreover, no one is claiming that the results of the poll should "matter" in that way! The poll merely points out some interesting facts. Why does Matthew think that the poll has to "matter"?

Posted by: Al | Apr 4, 2005 5:21:47 PM

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