New Polls Reflect Challenges for Vatican on Connecting With U.S. Catholics

A poll released Wednesday found that more than half of U.S. Catholics feel that the Vatican is out of touch with peoples’ needs, though most also said that their own parish is responsive. Ray Suarez talks with Scott Appleby of University of Notre Dame and James Towey of Ave Maria University about Catholicism at a crossroads.

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    Next: American Catholics and the church.

    As cardinals gather in Rome and prepare to select the next pope, Ray Suarez looks at the challenges the Vatican faces connecting with Roman Catholics here in the U.S.


    Among American Catholics, there have long been differences between the pulpit and the pew. But new polls suggest an even wider gap between the leadership and laypeople in 2013.

    The latest data comes from a New York Times/CBS poll released today. It found that more than half of U.S. Catholics say the church is out of touch with people's needs. Seven out of 10 say Pope Benedict and the Vatican did a poor job of handling the sexual abuse scandals. Nearly seven out of 10 also said they favored allowing priests to marry, ordaining women as priests, and allowing artificial methods of birth control.

    However, most also said they felt their own parish was responsive to their needs.

    We discuss all this with Scott Appleby. He studies American religious history at the University of Notre Dame. And James Towey, president of Ave Maria University, he was director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration.

    Professor Appleby, what do you make of the survey results? Are they just an intensification of trends that were already present?

    SCOTT APPLEBY, University of Notre Dame: American Catholic laity have been at some distance from the Vatican and the hierarchy on some of the issues you mentioned for several years now.

    And many would say that they feel much more comfortable, much more Catholic in their local parish. And that's partly because their local priest and the women religious, the sisters, and others who work in the parish understand their daily needs and interactions.

    It's difficult to find the connection with the Vatican or even with the archdiocese when you're working in a local faith community, and that's your experience of Catholicism. So there's a lot of satisfaction about the compassion and love and nurture there.

    Many of these problems facing the Vatican worldwide don't touch the lives of ordinary Catholics. And so there's a disconnect there, and some of the teachings as they're explained to parishioners don't meet or match their own faith-filled experience. And that's a problem.


    President Towey, what do you make of the numbers?

  • PRESIDENT JAMES TOWEY, Ave Maria University:

    I wasn't surprised a lot, because, first of all, when you're polling self-identifying Catholics, you might get a different outcome than you get if you are polling individuals that are in mass every Sunday.

    I think people do like their local parish. I think it's like polls that show Congress very unpopular, but yet the individual congressman, their home congressman or congresswoman, is very popular with them. So I think there is always a need for the church to be attentive to what are the views of the laity, and I think Scott is right that this follows some trends that we have seen really for decades on the fact that some of the church's teachings are unpopular.


    You're right when you say that the answers might be different among mass-attending Catholics. They are very different, not as skewed in many of the examples that I gave.

    Help people who aren't Roman Catholics understand that split.


    Well, I just think that, for some individuals, the experience of the Catholic faith, maybe they were cradle Catholics, maybe they left the church, maybe they recently left the church, and their experience would be different from those who find their Catholic faith integral to their daily lives.

    And so you see this in the elections, where President Obama won the Catholic vote, but among those attending mass on Sunday, he lost it to Romney. So, I think what you will find is, even within the church, even between institutions like Notre Dame and Ave Maria University, we might have different takes on church teaching and on also the role that our cardinals and bishops are playing in our lives.


    Scott Appleby, you keep a close watch on trends in American religion. Is there something distinctive about the Catholic experience in this regard, a split between what's taught, what's held by the denomination, and what's professed by individual believers?


    It's interesting to see that Catholics on some measures track very closely with some secular trends, more so than evangelical Protestants, than Mormons, than other religious groups and churches and mosques in the United States.

    And that's partly because Catholics have assimilated very rapidly over the last couple of decades into the American mainstream. And in some ways, they have divided identities. They take their cues from the secular mainstream society, which is not hostile to religion necessarily, but will emphasize different values and different metrics of what counts for success, and how to make judgments about everything from family to economy to one's profession.

    And, so, as Catholics have assimilated over the last 30 or 40 years into leadership positions and to elite positions in Congress and business across the board, there's a struggle for their loyalties, especially on areas where church teaching seems to contradict or at least is prophetically opposed to what counts for what's good in the mainstream.


    James Towey, does that explain for you why there was a call for an about-face on a lot of what is now Catholic teaching among the people that the Times pollsters spoke to?


    It doesn't surprise me at all, Ray, because the reality is the Catholic Church's teachings are often a sign of contradiction.

    Their positions on birth control, for example, would be a minority position if you put it up for a public opinion vote. Nonetheless, this is a consistent teaching in the church, has been for decades, since "Humanae Vitae" came out. That was unpopular, when the first definitive teaching on artificial birth control came out when the pill was coming out.

    So, you know, I think that the church is always going to be standing there often in opposition to cultural trends, the Kardashian culture that we live in. And so when you see a poll come out today that says, for example, they want — they want to see women ordained as priests, or they want to see priests being able to marry, those track what you would see with other Christian denominations that have clergy.

    And, from my point of view, I have only grown up knowing a Catholic Church holding a minority opinion on a lot of views. But I'm proud to be Catholic, and I share those views.


    Scott Appleby, let's talk a little bit about the — what the sexual abuse scandal has done to the modern church.

    This is something that the Roman Catholic Church has been living with now for over a decade. Has it caused a deeper cleavage between pulpit and pew?


    It's been absolutely devastating for the church, not only financially, materially, but in loss of trust.

    For my generation of young Catholics, the Second Vatican Council, aggiornamento, updating, religious freedom, ecumenical relations, the turn to the world and the social justice, that was the significant event in church history as I was growing up Catholic.

    For the people we teach at Notre Dame and Ave Maria, what they have heard about in Roman Catholic — in terms of Roman Catholicism is the sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up that is associated with it by bishops and now cardinals who have not done what many other people in positions of responsibility outside the church would have done in terms of due diligence and reporting.

    I agree with what's been said about the church being prophetic. I mentioned that myself. The other thing that is part of the genius of Catholicism is learning what is good in the culture itself, the notion that God is catholic, small-C, God is out there in the secular world, too, by the way.

    What do we learn from the secular world and how can we affiliate or connect that with our own Catholic values? In terms of protection of children, in terms of certain due process within the church, we could learn a lot from the society that would correspond to Gospel values.

    And I think part of the failure on the sexual abuse scandal has been that the church has circled the wagons and has been in an understandably defensive posture, but hasn't played to its best strength, which is affirmation of what is good in the world and what is true there.


    Let me hear from Jim Towey on that same issue, and especially now as the cardinals gather in Rome in the conclave and look ahead to a new leader for the worldwide church.


    Well, I think the American cardinals — I know many of them — they're acutely aware of the failures of the church to respond in a proper way. It was an embarrassment. It was a period of shame.

    I think the church is attempting to take steps to remedy the causes of what led to this awful tragedy and scandal, that scandalized not just Catholics, but people of all faiths. So, I think that there is, clearly, a damage that has been done.

    But I also look at the young people at Ave Maria and elsewhere that are seeing the new evangelization. They're seeing the interreligious dialogue. And they're also seeing the church in other part of the world like Africa and South America and Latin America, where the church is really growing and vibrant and young.

    And so while the American and Western European and other areas that have been particularly saddled with shame by the scandals, that's a concern for all Catholics.


    President Towey and Professor Appleby, gentlemen, thank you both.


    Thank you, Ray.


    Thank you, Ray. Great to be with you.