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Chicago area Catholics surveyed seek more dialogue and pluralism

Special Report Writer

By an overwhelming margin, Chicago area Catholics want their new archbishop to support the Catholic Common Ground ideas of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and to take a decidedly liberal stand on other issues, according to the results of a survey authorized by sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley.

Some 92 percent opted for a successor who would "work to bring together different factions in the Catholic church" rather than one who would "exclude those who disagree with the pope." Bernardin died Nov. 11 from pancreatic cancer. Shortly before his death he announced the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, an effort to establish dialogue among Catholics with differing views of the church.

In addition, the survey reported, 86 percent of Chicago Catholics prefer a bishop who tolerates (rather than condemns) laity who practice birth control; 84 percent want one who will "expand cooperation with Protestants and Jews"; 83 percent favor one who would "expand the role of women"; and 75 percent seek a bishop who is tolerant of those "who advocate the ordination of women as priests."

The data was supplied from a random sample of 501 Catholics by the Richard Day Research group in early December and has, said Greeley, a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

The survey questions provided no room for subtlety. In all cases they required respondents to declare whether they would like Bernardin's successor to be either tolerant and open or closed, restrictive and condemnatory. In a report issued Dec. 19, Greeley said the results show that archdiocesan Catholics are consistently "pluralistic" and seek a continuation of the more moderate policies of the late cardinal.

The strongest support for pluralism, he noted, is to be found in the following groups: women, those between 30 and 60 years of age, whites, the Irish, suburbanites, college graduates and those who attend Mass less often than weekly.

On the other hand, Greeley declared, the results indicate that less than 1 percent of the Chicago Catholics are consistently "fundamentalist," emphasizing institutional authority over all other considerations. To those who argue that laity have no right to participate in the selection of their bishop, Greeley recalled that such participation was commonplace for the church's first thousand years when "no one believed that Rome knew the needs of a diocese better than did the local clergy and laity."

Nevertheless, Greeley was decidedly pessimistic about the results of the current research. "It is unlikely," he said, "that the present leadership of the church will consider these findings for more than few moments, save perhaps to argue from them that Chicago is more of a mess than they thought it was and that therefore an especially stern and authoritative archbishop should be sent to Chicago."

Such an approach would only exacerbate tensions, Greeley predicted. "If Catholic leadership persuades itself that large numbers of Chicago Catholics want or will accept more authority and especially more authoritarian rule, that leadership will have misread the situation in the city completely. Any archbishop who is dramatically different from the late cardinal and who tries to impose stricter authority ... is not likely to be effective."

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997