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This brief report will summarize the results of a survey of the attitudes of American Catholics on the kind of man they hope will be elected Pope at the next conclave, whenever that conclave will be.1 Our report is based on a telephone survey of a representative sample of 770 American Catholics conducted by the Gallup organization in March and April of 1996.2 (The Gallup organization is not responsible for the data analysis reported herein.) By large majorities American Catholics hope for a Pope who will radically democratize their Church. This conclusion is based on their response to seven questions:


    We are interested in what type of leader Catholics would like to see elected the next Pope. As you may know, when a Pope dies the Cardinals meet in Rome to elect a new Pope. The last time a Pope was elected was in 1978 when Pope John Paul II was elected:

    1) How would you feel about letting representative lay people have more of a voice in the Catholic Church for example by serving as advisors to the Pope. Would you favor oppose this?

    2) Currently Catholic bishops are appointed by the Vatican. In the past bishops were elected by priests and people within their own diocese. Would you prefer the next Pope to continue to appoint bishops or would you prefer to have bishops chosen by priests and people within their own diocese?

    3) Would you like the next Pope to be more open to change in the Church or do you think things are ok the way they are?

    4) Would you favor or oppose the next Pope allowing the ordination of women to the priesthood?

    5) Would you favor or oppose the next Pope permitting priests to marry?

    6) Would you like to see the next Pope give more decision making power to the bishops in the U.S., or do you think the Pope should continue to make most of the decisions for the church?

    7) Which would you consider more important in choosing a Pope, that the Pope show more concern about what life is like for ordinary people or that the Pope should show more concern about religious issues?

78% of the respondents supported the idea of a Pope who would choose some of his advisors from ordinary lay people; 69% said they would rather have a Pope who would permit married priests; the same proportion opted for a Pope who was more concerned about the life of ordinary people; 65% hoped for a Pope who would permit the laity and clergy to choose their own bishop; the same proportion supported a Pope who would approve the ordination of women and a similar proportion approved a Pope who would be more open to change. Finally, 58% opted for a Pope who would grant more decision making power to the American bishops.

With the possible exception of the issue of the ordination of women, none of these questions pertain to the doctrines of the Catholic Church and all pertain to the style of ecclesiastical governing and organizational structure.

Just as there is a gender gap in American politics, so too there is a gender gap in Catholic attitudes towards the kind of Pope desired, with women being more radical in their expectations. A Figure 1 demonstrates, women are more likely to support radical change then men on every item except the ordination of women, a subject on which there not a statistically significant difference between men and women. However women are significantly more likely to support a Pope who would advocate the popular election of bishops (ten percentage points), married priests (seven percentage points), the importance of every day life (seven percentage points) and lay representatives among papal advisors (six percentage points).

These seven items constituted not only a "factor" in factor analysis, they also constituted a monotonic "scale" in the strict sense of the word: If one accepts the least popular (decentralization of power) of the papal qualities, one is likely to accept all the more popular and if one rejects the most popular (lay advisors) one is likely to reject all the less popular - and so on down the line (and up the line) of popularity of reforms.

Sixteen percent of the respondents endorsed a Pope who would support all seven reforms, 35% voted for a Pope would approve of six out of seven and a majority - 56% -- opted for a Pope who would introduce five out of the seven reforms. Only 3% opposed all the reforms, 6% more approved only one reform and 10% more supported only three reforms. Thus support for a more democratic and pluralistic Church is consistent and widespread among American Catholics, perhaps not such a surprising phenomenon in a Catholic population which lives in a pluralistic and a democratic society. Nonetheless, a desire for a more pluralistic and democratic church institution exists despite repeated statements of priests and bishops that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. At least as far as institutional structure and organizational style, American Catholics clearly want it to be more like a democracy. Figure 2 shows that support for at least five changes is stronger among younger Catholics and among women. Indeed the correlation with youthfulness is concentrated among women and the difference between the genders is concentrated among women under 40. Those younger Catholic women who reached maturity during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II are the most likely to advocate radical reform in the Church (though it does not follow that this radicalism was CAUSED by the John Paul pontificate). The image so dear to many Church leaders of docile and unquestioningly loyal Catholic women simply is no longer accurate, if it ever was.

Support for a Pope who would change the Church is also stronger among the college educate. those who have had some kind of higher education approve on the average 4.6 changes as opposed to 4.1 changes for those who have not attended college. The strongest support for a change oriented Pope exists among those who make more than $35,000 a year3, 4.7 changes as opposed to 4.4 for those who earn less. Those who go to Mass almost every week are less supportive of change of change than those who go less frequently, 4.1 versus 4.8.

The highest proportion of changes supported are to be found among women who are forty or under and have attended college: 5.2 and the lowest among men over forty who have not attended college: 3.7.While there are variations within the Catholic population in their support for a Pope of change, there is still strong support even among those who are less likely than others to support all or most of the changes.

As the table shows, there is majority support among all groups for a Pope who would institute the most radical of changes, the popular election of bishops and the decentralization of power from Rome to the American bishops. Only among those over fifty does support for the election of bishops fall under 60%. Similarly only among those over fifty, those who have not attended college and those who attend mass regularly does support for decentralization of power fall under 55%. Support for both democracy and pluralism is strong and widespread among American Catholics.

When one combines age, education and gender, one discovers that only among men over fifty who have not been to college does support for a Pope who would permit the popular election of bishops sink below 50% -- to 49%. Highest support comes from women under fifty who have been to college -75%. In the case of the decentralization of power 45% of the men over fifty who have not been to college hope for a Pope who would promote that reform versus 66% of the women under 55 who have been to college.

How strong are the feelings of Americans about the need for a pope who would stand for such changes. 64% of those that want a Pope who would support all seven changes say that they would be disappointed if such a Pope were not elected while 40% of those who are opposed to change (support none or only one) say that they would be very disappointed. The greatest investment in the attitude of the next Pope comes not from the opponents of democratic pluralism but its supporters. Moreover disappointment would be serious among those who go to Mass regularly and support at least five changes - 60%. It would be lowest among those who do not go to Mass regularly and oppose change -- 29%. Among those who go to Mass regularly and oppose change disappointment if a Pope does not support their position would be 50%.

Among the devout, in other words, it is the supporters of a Pope who would institute change that are more likely to be disappointed if they lose than it is the supporters of a Pope who would reject change. (Recent research has demonstrated conclusively that the allegiance of very few Catholics to the Church is affected by these issues. Most Catholics, while they do not like institutional policies, remain in the Church for other reasons). We reanalyzed these data considering only those who reported strong "interest" in the outcome of the election and observed the same phenomena. Interest in the outcome of the conclave does not effect disappointment in its outcome if a man unlike the one the respondents want is elected. Against those who would dismiss these findings on the grounds that the Church is not a democracy and hence the Cardinal electors need not consider the wishes of the laity, one can only reply that the two radical institutional changes would represent a return to ecclesiastical administrative styles which were taken for granted for a thousand years. Such changes may or may not be wise, but only those ignorant of history can dismiss them as foreign to the nature of the Church.

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. This analysis suggest 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, in a sense to return the church to its more democratic past.

Speaking from the perspective of sociologists we are unable to respond directly to those who say the election of the Pope is the right and privilege of the Cardinals and is no one else's business. However, three observations can be made.

1) No one could possibly claim that the right of the Cardinal electors is part of the essence of the Church, much less their right to do as they please.

2) In the contemporary world those who are unhappy with the selection of a leader, any leader, are less likely to follow that leader, even if they do not formally break with him. Such a leader can reign perhaps, but it will be harder for him to rule.

3) As we understand Catholic theology, subject to correction by those wiser than us in these matters, the Spirit of God is present in the people as well as in the leadership. The leadership would imprudent, not to say arrogant, to dismiss the possibility that the Spirit might be speaking to them through the wishes and insights of the ordinary people.

Finally, it will be said that the findings reported here apply only to the United States and are not likely to be present in other countries - the usual casual dismissal of American research. We would remind those who so easily come to that self-serving conclusion that they said the same thing about the early research on American attitudes on birth control. On the basis of our experience in studying Catholicism in many different countries, we predict that our findings could be replicated in virtually every European and North Atlantic country.4 The Cardinal electors would be singularly ill-advised not to take our prediction seriously.


Table Support for Changes in Church Structure

Decentralization of Power Election of Bishops Men 60% 56%* Women 69% 60% College 66%* 61% Not College 63% 52% Forty or Under 69% 59%* Fifty or Older 56% 53% Frequent Mass 61% 52% Monthly or less Mass 70% 64% Income Under $35,000 65%* 56%* Income Over $35,000 67% 61%

*Difference not statistically significant

1 And we offer no speculations on when the next conclave will occur. However, barring the parousia there will eventually be a conclave.

2 Father Greeley is also a research associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Professor Hout is the director of the Survey Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

3 Income and education contribute equally to the desire for a changed church.

4 Our project is being replicated in six other countries, the names of five of which are not being made public lest ecclesiastical authorities try to impede the project. The data have already been collected in Spain.

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