People attend the funeral mass for Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic at St. Michael's Catholic CathedralThe results of a recent poll by the New York Times and CBS News, published today in the article “U.S. Catholics in Poll See a Church Out of Touch,” reveal some statistics that are easily predictable and could have anticipated by most well-informed and common-sensical people. For example, the headline that declares Catholics in the United States to view the church as “out of touch” with the pressing needs of the day is not particularly news, even as one grants the veracity of that sense of the faithful. Yet, there are other details that emerge within the reporting on the poll and its results that are in need of further consideration. For example, the way in which a question appears to have been posed to those polled suggests an either/or approach to the reliance on “one’s conscience” and the “teachings of the pope” when making a moral decision, which does not adequately take into consideration the church’s teaching on the primacy and centrality of the well-formed conscience in making such a call. These and a few other points are worth some additional reflection below.

An “out of touch” Church — The lede of the New York Times piece contends that the sense of the “people in the pews” is largely that the “Pope” and “the bishops” and “the Vatican,” as the reporters put it at various points throughout the article,    are “out of touch” and need to connect with the needs of people today. This sentiment, from my perspective, is absolutely reflective of a great majority of women and men of faith. I encounter daily this sort of concern from people who are both devout in their religious practice and others who are perhaps less explicit in the affective commitments of their faith life. However, there are a few things that need be addressed further.

The first is the notion that the “Pope” and “the bishops” and “the Vatican” are all synonymous terms that can be exchanged at will. They are not. The pope, who is the bishop of Rome and first among equals within the college of bishops worldwide, represents a particular office, has certain (yet, it should be noted, restricted) authority, and is rarely personally involved in the lives of particular churches (that is, dioceses). Bishops, on the other hand, technically have much more authority and influence in their respective dioceses. They are often grouped together, something that is the result of episcopal conferences of respective countries acting more and more in union on a regular basis over the last several decades, however they are really independent and wield their apostolic authority in varying ways from person to person and from diocese to diocese. The Vatican is really an euphemism for the church’s hierarchical leadership, but technically refers to the sovereign city-state inside Rome, Italy, where the bureaucratic offices of the Roman Catholic Church reside and where the Pope and his closest advisors happen to live. Practically speaking, there is no “the Vatican” that speaks on anything or exists beyond the geographic and international boundaries of the walls of Vatican City. However, in a piece of journalism like this, it’s important to note what or whom is or isn’t speaking and so on.

One further note on this theme of being out of touch. Yes, I have no doubt that citizens of the United States feel that the Roman Catholic Church as an institution is deeply out of touch with their needs and concerns. Yet, it might be helpful to remember that the millions of Catholics in the U.S. represent only a small portion of the more-than-a-billion Catholics worldwide. This isn’t to mitigate the real need and obligation U.S. bishops have to be aware of the needs and concerns of the faithful in their dioceses, but it does raise the question: is the church-as-institution out of touch with everybody’s needs or just those needs of the developed Western world? The answer might be that church leaders are out of touch with the needs of all contemporary Catholics, but that important nuance is not considered in these data.

Role of Conscience — I was struck by a little survey result that gets minimal attention in the article: “Nearly 8 in 10 Catholics polled said they would be more likely to follow their conscience on “difficult moral questions” than to follow the pope’s teachings.” What this seems to suggest is that the pollsters and, subsequently, the reporters presenting this data in the Times have little sense of what constitutes the church’s teaching on moral decision-making. The conscience and “the pope’s teachings” are not oppositional or two possible choices among others. The church’s teaching is always that the “well-formed conscience” of each individual is that which is the ultimate source of moral decision making. While I rarely cite the Catechism, because it is a teaching tool for catechumens and not a theological text as such, the succinct summary the Catechism presents on this matter captures this point well:

1782    Man [sic] has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

The so-called “pope’s teachings,” as the Times puts it, are but one of several other sources for forming the individual conscience for moral decision making. Central to all moral acts is the notion of the legitimate exercise of human freedom. If, as the poll and this article suggest, one were to blindly follow “the pope’s teachings,” she or he would not be acting out of freedom, something that conscience is said to guarantee.

1781    Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgment of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice. The verdict of the judgment of conscience remains a pledge of hope and mercy. In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked, the good that must still be practiced, and the virtue that must be constantly cultivated with the grace of God.

Again, these are not two opposed options, but related forms of moral formation. It is, ultimately, not the “pope’s teachings” that explicitly direct this or that person in making a particular moral choice in his or her unique, historical circumstances, but they are instructions to help form a person’s conscience for just such an act.

Capital Punishment and Abortion — One of the interesting polling results that the article presents has to do with the fact that a majority of the respondents desire the church to maintain certain opposition to controversial issues, even if the individual person surveyed disagrees in personal practice or opinion. The Times piece explains: “Majorities said they wanted to see the next pope maintain the church’s opposition to abortion and the death penalty, even though they themselves were not opposed to them. Three-quarters of Catholics supported abortion under at least some circumstances, and three-fifths favored the death penalty.”

There are several things worth considering further here, including the apparent disconnect between the universal value or approval of the church’s opposition to matters out of principle and the individual support or rejection of that teaching. Interestingly enough, this sort of statistical disconnect reflects a very important moral principle in Catholic teaching: obsequium religiosum. This notion, in brief, means that an individual Christian should offer “religious assent” to teachings that she or he find difficult to accept or do not understand, with the caveat that she or he will try to followup this personal disconnect between the official teaching of the church (such as opposition to the death penalty) and the personal appropriation of another view (such as personally supporting the death penalty). The odd thing here is that the majority of people actually support the church’s view despite their personal disagreement at the time is a colloquial expression of exactly this teaching.

Priests and Preaching — Lest, like a bad homily, this post ramble on any further, it’s worth noting the support U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly showed for their local priests, religious sisters, and the work that they do — including the weekly Sunday homilies. This is the fact about which I’m most incredulous (or perhaps I’m just cynical and jaded by decades of being exposed to bad preaching and now, my apologies to all who have to listen to me preach, I probably inflict the same suffering on others!). The Times explains: “Catholics seemed to feel far more warmly toward their local priests than those in the hierarchy. Seven in 10 Catholics in the poll said they felt that their parish priests were “in touch with the needs of Catholics today.” Eighty-five percent of those who attend Mass said the sermons were excellent or good.”

I hope this accurately reflects the views of those in the pews (I can think of many for whom 85% good preaching is a far-off dream), regardless, it’s nice to see some good news at the local, personal, and daily level. It’s a practical reminder that  all the baptized are the church, which is the Body of Christ and the People of God. And the life of the church is the live of all the people in their everyday particularities.

Photo: Reuters


  1. While I like the summation you have written about, I do think the Vatican (the structure in Rome) does reach down to individual dioceses and try to insert their influence. This is always not understood by the faithful. What we need in the church is more transparency on every level. Deacon Bill Coffey

  2. Dan,
    Overall, a very good summary and explanation of the issues. We are fortunate that we belong to an Intentional Christian Community (ICC) and have an OCarm. OFM and S.J.’s to celebrate our liturgies each Sunday and their homilies are excellent followed by a dialogue.
    I am pleased about the 85% but from my reading and observations there are many of the children of those 85% who do not go to Mass on Sunday. They seem to have been discouraged by the sexual abuse and even more so by the coverup by many bishops from here to Rome who would rather hide the crimes than scandalize. They would rather pay off the offenders than heal the abused and report the offenders to law enforcement. In VA the catholic church was the only group fighting the extension of the statute of limitations on sexual abuse of children. Of course the birth control issue is another which a lot of them don’t understand should be, as you stated, ultimately a matter of conscience. i hope we can do something to include them in the church.
    Thank you for all you do.

  3. A good rendition of a poll and an article which on the whole leave to be desired.

    Frankly, I don’t trust polls of 580 folks with questions that are taking you down a visible path.

    Allow me to say that it is often difficult to separate the Pope, the Bishops and the Vatican, because so often they seem to give the the same talking points… Once in a while, one hears of a lone retired bishop speaking out in favor of women. I cannot think of one priest, one bishop or a pope speaking out in favor of welcoming the gay community, even though, my Godde, they could use the support and the welcome of Mother Church.

    Just yesterday, the “Vatican” was in the news as opposing a UN declaration to protect women from domestic violence. So, who was this “Vatican” deciding of the fate of hundreds of millions of women?

    Yes, you have the millions of Catholics in the US, and the rest of the world… Our preoccupations differ. Still, women are abused and gays are often killed in too many places. The Catholic hierarchy by remaining silent on those topics, or even leaning on the scales against these people is doing so much damage. And there is no international tribunal for hierarchical misdeeds.

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