OPINION: Quinnipiac Poll of Catholics — predictable

By Dr Jeff Mirus
catholicculture.org

The latest poll of Catholic opinions was conducted last month by Quinnipiac University. Our summary of the results does not paint a pretty picture of the moral and spiritual values of Catholics who attend Mass once a week or less. But neither does it reveal anything new.

Dozens of studies over the past thirty years have amply demonstrated that a strong correlation of moral values between the teaching Church and Catholic lay people exists only for those who attend Mass more often than the minimum requirement. We might find some sort of positive correlation also for Catholics who attend Mass on Sundays and all Holy Days of Obligation, but we would still be dealing with a group which just manages to obey the rules on Mass attendance. I am certain, on the other hand, that we could get a very strong correlation for people who receive the Sacrament of Penance frequently, say more than once a month on average—or probably even more than six times per year. That would make an interesting study.

One caveat is probably in order. It is a very fair assumption that people over-report their Mass attendance. A great many would say they attend weekly because that is how they think of it. Even though they skip one or two weeks a month for reasons of convenience, they do attend year-round, and they very naturally think in terms of the general norm rather than the specific result. An independent counting of actual Masses attended would probably give true weekly participants a stronger values correlation. I am referring to those who are actually very serious about doing no less than what the Church requires, because they actually take the Church’s spiritual authority seriously. That can make all the difference.

But a study confined to those who self-report as attending Mass weekly or less will almost inevitably mirror the values of the secular culture of which these Catholics are a part. This is obvious, for the hallmark of any Catholic who has awakened spiritually is that he or she desires to do more than the spiritual minimums prescribed by Church law. If American culture as a whole, particularly our cultural elites (that is, our opinion makers), were solidly opposed to abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women (to cite three of the major moral issues covered by the poll), then those values would be shared by roughly the same numbers of minimalist Catholics. And it would tell us almost nothing about their spiritual health, even though they might mirror a better set of values.

But in contemporary Western culture, the Church is not a part of the apparatus by which fashionable opinions are formed. It follows that those who are relatively dormant spiritually—Catholics who do only a self-reported minimum or far less than the minimum in terms of sacramental life—are not going to derive their opinions primarily from the Church. They are not spiritually driven.

The most important thing to take away from the latest Quinnipiac University poll, then, is that it is entirely predictable. Insofar as Catholic minimalists are polled, the numbers will mirror the general culture. But whenever we poll those who have experienced the deep spiritual desire to go beyond the minimum, as reflected in a richer participation in the Church’s sacramental life—especially more frequent Mass and more frequent Confession—the numbers always skew dramatically away from the cultural norm. There is no reason to be surprised by the results of this and many other polls. Again, anybody could accurately predict the results before going through the polling exercise.

The Impact of Renewal

A substantial improvement in these correlations, of course, can come through renewal. Insofar as the Church continues down the path of authentic renewal, the positive correlations between her teaching and the values of participating laity will increase. But this increase will be accompanied (and largely caused) by an increasing emphasis on prayer and sacraments among the faithful—by real spiritual growth.

This process will also entail broader numerical shifts. Either people will be stirred to greater counter-cultural commitment, which requires spiritual growth, or they will be made sufficiently uncomfortable to drop off in their participation. If enough people go deeper, the witness of the Church will become stronger and more unified, and genuine evangelization will increase. Paradoxically, it is precisely this concentration of spiritual intensity that is the key to future growth.

It is also the key to changing the larger culture, and reducing the values gap between the culture and the Church. Inviting others to share the joy of a deep commitment to Christ in the heart of the Church is, in fact, the only way in which the values gap can be closed legitimately. Obviously, the goal is for the Church to radiate Christ so that she attracts people who want to grow in Christ, not people who want a comfortable pew while denying Christ’s teachings. For this reason, to close the values gap between Church and culture by accommodation, that is, by diminishing the Church’s Catholic intensity, is always counter-productive.

In fact, such diminishment produces the situation all the polls tell us we are in today, not that there are too many dedicated Catholics who have non-Catholic values, but that there are too many non-dedicated people who self-identify as Catholics only sentimentally. They are vaguely desirous of a minimalist religiosity without any morally costly commitments.

For all that, there is some evidence in the Quinnipiac University poll that the renewal of the episcopate and the priesthood is gradually strengthening life in the pews, developing in the faithful a greater spiritual intensity. How else can we explain the age-related numbers on support of women’s ordination, especially given that the universities are lagging well behind the curve of Catholic renewal. The poll tells us that support for the ordination of women is at 68% among those 65 and over, 64% for ages 50 to 64, and 57% for those 18 to 49. Does this mean that support must inescapably increase with age and wisdom, as a secularist would read the poll, or does it really mean younger Catholics are more prone to take Church teachings seriously?

Perhaps we do not yet know. For now, however, the big takeaway is that it simply is not news that self-identified Catholics, ranging in commitment from zero to the minimum attendance requirement, should betray the same attitudes as the surrounding culture. This is exactly like discovering that someone with a thumb and only one finger has a weaker grip.

From catholicculture.org

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