MassLet’s say you’re an American Catholic bishop and you’re thinking about what your people would like to see in the new pope. You’re not really interested in the views of all those nominal Catholics who rarely darken your door. It’s the loyal parishioners, the leaven in the lump, whose opinions you want to know.

So you turn to the interactive graphic of the New York Timesnew survey of American Catholics and click on the drop-down box in the upper right so it says, “Show responses from ATTEND MASS WEEKLY.” 

Sure enough, these folks are more with the program than the other demographic cohorts. Seventy percent of them think the next pope should be against legalized abortion and 67 percent think he should oppose the death penalty.

On the other hand, 61 percent think he should be in favor of letting priests marry; 57 percent, that he should be in favor of letting women be priests. Sixty-two percent think he should support artificial methods of birth control; 82 percent, that he should favor the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV infection and other diseases.

By a three-to-one margin they say they’re more likely to follow their own conscience than the pope’s teachings on difficult moral questions, and 74 percent think it’s possible to disagree with the pope on issues like birth control, abortion, and divorce and still be a good Catholic.

Two-thirds would like the cardinals to choose a younger pope with new ideas. Forty percent would like those ideas to be more liberal than Pope Benedict’s, while just 22 percent would like them to be more conservative.

What’s a poor bishop to do? If your most loyal cohort, representing about 25 percent of American Catholics, is so far removed from where your magisterium, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel. Or maybe it’s time for a different kind of pope.

Categories: Beliefs, Institutions


Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


  1. Ronald Sevenster

    These statistics about opinions on Church doctrine of “devout” Catholics who attend Mass weekly show devastatingly clear that the overwhelming majority of them is not Catholic at all. A Catholic is bound in conscience to obey the Church in all matters of faith and morals. To say that you’ll follow your own conscience instead of the Pope’s teachings is a flat denial of that basis obligation and betrays a complete misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of conscience, which is always the informed conscience, i.e. the conscience as formed by the Church’s teachings. To follow your conscience in a Catholic sense is simply to obey the Church. A person who knows the doctrine of the Church and knows that the Church demands his obedience is not following his own conscience when acts contrary to this doctrine. He is willfully disobedient, i.e. he is rebellious, whether he wants to acknowledge this fact or not. The idea is that he following his own conscience is nothing but a cover-up of his rebelliousness.

    • Sorry, Ronald, you need to study the history of your own church, even as current as Vatican Council II, 1962-65, which declared the sanctity of conscience which no one has any right to violate with any kind of force. This is the 21st century. You are not expected to be a blind sheep to any shepherd pope or other bishop. The blind obedience of which you write would even cover a priest ordering a kid to undress so he could have his way with him. It is only honorable, downright saintly, to rebel in following one’s own conscience against the sins and crimes of clergy and bishops, popes included. There is absolutely nothing in the gospels or in any sane philosophy or discussion, that requires blind obedience of anyone. Why do you think you have a mind, supposedly created by God? To not use it?

      • Ronald Sevenster

        The Catholic conscience of the documents of Vaticanum II is always the conscience as informed by the Church’s teachings. This can never be “blind obedience” as you call it, since it follows from the inner act of wilful assent to the contents of divine revelation, which is the Catholic definition of faith. So by definition this wilful assent is never by force. The inner assent to the Church’s teachings can by its very nature never be by force, for that wouldn’t be true inner assent. Binding a person by brute force would be contrary to the whole sense of the Catholic doctrine of conscience. Every Catholic with a rudimentary knowledge of elementary Christian morals knows that a priest cannot rightfully order a child to undress. Such an order would even be contrary to natural law, which is always the presupposition of the supernatural contents of revelation. If the contents of the Church’s teachings were not binding in conscience, this would imply that the conscience can be informed in another way and contrary to these teachings. This would make the very claim of the authority of the Church an empty notion, and, in the end, it would lead to a complete dissolution of the Church and of Catholic identity.

  2. By “leaven in the lump,” U.S. bishops mean those “faithful” Catholics who continue to warm the pews and dump the buck in the baskets in spite of the fact that bishops have long covered up the sex crimes and sins against their kids, those “Catholics” who will not take a stand against the criminal behavior of priests and bishops with their kids. Pew warmers are duped. Their “reverence” toward any clergy is illiterate. All the clergy, especially the hierarchy, is guilty of these crimes and the ways they have “increased and multiplied” with the help of sleazy accountants and layers that shoe same people in the pews pay for.

  3. Many of our Saints listened to their conscience and were therefore required to reject obedience to the hierarchy. Through their open disobedience, the Church was led to a fuller, more complete understanding of Divine Revelation. Perhaps, I should not say “disobedience” because these Saints were being obedient – as sons and daughters of God. That is where a truly formed conscience leads the faithful. I point specifically to Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, but there are many more examples.

  1. […] As the conclave commences, theologians should be permitted to explore such questions as married priests.  The Vatican already countenances married clergy in Eastern Rite churches and for Anglicans who convert to Catholicism.  And what about the case for women priests, the role of American nuns who have been assailed by Rome—and yes, the equality of all God’s children, gay and straight?  Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist who applauds “the Ratzinger legacy,” has written that this pope “did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America.”  Yet ex-Catholics, 22 million of them, are now the second- or third-largest denomination in the United States.  And according to the new CBS–New York Times poll, those who remain, nearly 70 million, are looking not only toward a new pope, but a renewed church: 54 percent “would like the next pope to change to more liberal teachings”—and only 37 percent want to stick with Benedict’s line or move rightward.  By wide margins, even the most observant Catholics, who attend mass every week, favor married priests, women priests, artificial birth control, and condoms to combat HIV/AIDS; 74 percent believe you can be a good Catholic while disagreeing with the pope even on abortion. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.