John Paul II
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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

Polls highlight contradictions


Americans loved the messenger even as they rejected key elements of the message, according to polls conducted following John Paul II’s death.

John Paul II was a great pope who will likely be canonized, said Americans surveyed by The Associated Press, by USA Today, and by Le Moyne College and Zogby International. Ninety-eight percent of the 888 American Catholics polled by Zogby the day after the pope died agreed that “Pope John Paul II did a good job leading the worldwide church,” while 94 percent said likewise about his stewardship of the “American Catholic church.”

Large majorities (90 percent or greater) told Zogby that John Paul II was “an effective leader” on economic justice, on war and peace issues, and in opposing abortion and capital punishment. A significant majority (70 percent) agreed “the pope was an effective leader for improving the status of women in the church” though only 39 percent held this view “strongly.”

Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of the Catholics interviewed by USA Today said the next pope should be about as conservative as the late pontiff, while one-third hope for someone “more liberal.”

But the consensus about the character and qualities of John Paul II’s leadership quickly disappears when such hot-button issues as birth control, optional celibacy, female priests and church decision-making procedures are considered:

  • Sixty nine percent of Americans surveyed by The Associated Press say the next pope should “change church policies to allow priests to marry” while 64 percent say women should be ordained. In its poll of 254 American Catholics, USA Today found two-thirds support for optional celibacy and majority support (55 percent) for women’s ordination.
  • Two-thirds of Catholics surveyed by Zogby and a similar number of Americans of all faiths polled by The Associated Press say that the church should be “more democratic” in its decision-making or “give lay people a greater say in how the church is governed.”
  • Nearly 80 percent of American Catholics, according to USA Today, say the church should liberalize its teaching on artificial birth control and 60 percent say church teaching on stem cell research should be “less strict.” Nearly 60 percent say the church should continue its opposition to legalized abortion.

“People really liked and respected John Paul II,” said Mary MacDonald, director of Le Moyne College’s Contemporary Catholic Trends Project. “But at the same time, American Catholics like to think for themselves, are increasingly well-educated and able to think for themselves.”

The seeming contradictions highlighted by the polls -- support for more democratic church structures and for a next pope roughly as conservative as John Paul II, rejection of the church’s teaching on birth control and admiration for the man who shut off further discussion of the topic -- are elements of “a juggling act” that is part of being an American Catholic, said MacDonald.

“People respectfully listen to church teaching and then decide in some cases that it is not appropriate in a particular context or best for them in their lives,” said MacDonald. “I don’t see it as disobedience -- I see it as assuming adult responsibility.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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