New data suggest Catholics are not in step with their bishops

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In a November 18 NCR Morning Briefing post, Stephanie Yeagle cited an article in The Washington Times that describes an interesting new poll of Catholic positions on family related concerns. The poll provides data that ought to at least cause us to think about some of these issues again.

As The Washington Times points out the data was released by some progressive Catholic advocacy groups such as Call To Action. Yet the results remain significant and are in line with several other polls that have been taken. The data suggest that about 75% of Catholics do not support laws that would give companies the right to deny coverage to their employees based on the owners’ religious beliefs. In fact, two-thirds of Catholic voters surveyed disapprove of companies denying birth control coverage to their workers because of the religious views of owners.

The poll points to a couple of other interesting results as well. More than 50% of these Catholic voters support physician-assisted suicide. 70% are in favor of stem cell research. Finally, a total of 84% of Catholics support legal abortion in certain cases.

The data lend credence to the comments of Katie Jones, the program coordinator for Call To Action: “Most Catholics do not look to the hierarchy as the sole arbiter of their moral decision making.”

Such polls, regardless of results, always bring up the issue that our church is not a democracy. The issue of truth can not be determined by a public opinion poll. For those who see the church as merely the custodian of all truth, such comments essentially end any discussion. Yet according to the data this traditional group actually represents only a fraction of all Catholics. Again, the answer could be these other folks are not really Catholics and the church should simply settle for a remnant of true believers.

We can do much better, however. Moral values have changed over and over again through the centuries. St. Paul said women should cover their heads in church. There are clearly biblical references to the acceptability of slavery. When I was a child, if a girl became pregnant out of wedlock she had to leave town to have her baby and give it up for adoption so that no one in the community would know what she had done. The act itself may still be considered wrong, but the public’s attitude toward this behavior has changed dramatically. One could go on with myriad examples, but as I learned in my seminary sociology class many years ago, the mores or customs of the community do change. That has to change how we treat people, and that is what the family synod is about.

There are absolutes in moral theology. One of them in fact, is the worth, value and dignity of every human being. If we decide that we are going to treat our fellow humans and our fellow Catholics accordingly, there will be a dramatic consensus at next year’s synod to move forward on the progressive recommendations being considered. The U.S. bishops may also decide to stop insisting that their position on birth control and health care plans needs to be imposed on the entire country regardless of what anybody else believes.

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