Catholics Favor Married and Female Priests, Survey Finds
American Catholics want their next pope to open the doors of the Catholic Church to married and female priests and permit laypeople to help elect their own bishops, according to a new survey commissioned by dissident Catholic priest Andrew Greeley.
The survey, conducted by the Gallup Poll organization and released Thursday by Greeley and sociologist Michael Hout, also found that American Catholics want the next pope to choose representative laypeople as advisors and to give more authority to U.S. bishops.
“In the early years of anti-Catholic prejudice in this country, it was feared that Catholics might try to impose the authoritarianism of their church background on American political life,” Greeley and Hout said.
“This analysis suggests that just the opposite has happened: American Catholics want the democracy and pluralism of their political life to shape the institutional church and the papacy.”
Greeley, an author and sociologist at the University of Chicago--and a persistent liberal critic of the church--was criticized this week by some church officials, who contend that he commissioned the poll primarily to provide publicity for his new book, which features an elected pope who resembles the more democratic pontiff Catholics said they desired in the new survey.
“It looks like, first of all, Father Greeley’s blowing smoke here. It strikes me as a publicity stunt,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic Conference.
The poll results come during turmoil over the acceptable limits of dissent within the church. Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz has stated that Catholics in his diocese who join a variety of groups, from Planned Parenthood to Call to Action, an organization that favors married and female priests, should be excommunicated.
At the same time, a coalition of more than 20 liberal Roman Catholic organizations, including Call to Action, the Women’s Ordination Conference and abortion rights and gay rights groups, have launched a campaign to get 1 million signatures on petitions calling for “fundamental church reforms,” including a married priesthood, female ordination and the popular election of bishops.
Sister Maureen Fiedler, national coordinator of the We Are Church coalition sponsoring the campaign, said the “referendum,” as it is called, “is the rough draft of an agenda for a Third Vatican Council.”
Many liberal Catholics believe that the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, began a process of fundamental reform of the church that has been halted during the papacy of John Paul II. They hope the next pope will call a new, or third, council that will include priests and laity as well as bishops and renew the reform movement.
The petition campaign mirrors similar drives in Europe. In three weeks last June, more than 500,000 Austrians signed a call for fundamental change in the church. In Germany, 1.8 million signatures were collected last fall. Drives also are underway among Catholics in Italy, France, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada.
Fiedler said the new Gallup Poll results reflect a growing trend among Catholics to seek greater democratization of the church.
But Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, worries that the liberal coalition’s campaign could harm the church and urged its leaders “not to create new divisions” in the Catholic Church “by continued challenges to the teachings and the authority of the church that has nurtured the faith of us all.”
Although public opinion polls show support among self-identified Catholics for many of the changes sought by the campaign, the yearlong petition drive could be a key test of the liberal groups’ efforts to organize and mobilize that support.
In the Gallup telephone survey of 770 American Catholics, conducted in March and April, respondents expressed a desire for the new pope to be more open to change in the church:
* 78% said the next pope should let laypeople have more of a voice in the church by serving as papal advisors.
* 69% said the next pope should permit priests to marry; 65% also said the next pontiff should support the ordination of women.
* 65% hoped for a pontiff who would allow priests and people within their diocese to select their own bishop.
* 58% said the next pope should give more decision-making authority to U.S. bishops.
The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The issues raised by the liberal groups echo concerns voiced last June by 40 U.S. bishops in a statement circulated among the prelates as they debated the role and structure of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The 40 bishops, out of about 300 bishops in the United States, expressed concern that the Vatican had cut off debate too rapidly on such issues as a married priesthood and female ordination.
Conservative Catholic groups are critical of the new campaign. The liberal coalition’s leaders “have rejected Catholic doctrine and many of [the coalition’s] members have probably not seen the inside of a Catholic church in years--if ever,” said the National Committee of Catholic Laymen.