Sed Contra: Zogby’s Catholic Poll Misses the Point

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 2002

The Jesuits usually take pride in being up-to-date. Sadly though, their association with a recent poll of Catholics shows they’re willing to employ some truly outdated methodologies.

Pollster John Zogby was commissioned by Le Moyne, a Jesuit college in Syracuse, New York, to conduct a series of polls measuring Catholic attitudes. On November 16, the early results were released and published on page 4 of USA Today. Guess what Zogby found out? A majority of Catholics disagree with Church teaching on contraception (61.2 percent), priestly celibacy (53.5 percent), and women’s ordination (52.9 percent).

Zogby released these numbers without making any distinction between Catholics who go to Mass regularly and those who don’t. This despite the fact that he has admitted that Mass attendance makes a big difference in the opinions of Catholics. Yet, for whatever reason, he keeps this difference to himself. That is, except on the issue of the death penalty, where those who attend Mass are more opposed than those who do not.

Three years ago, Steve Wagner conducted a similar survey for Crisis, with one important exception: He made the distinction between religiously active and inactive Catholics central to his analysis. The results were clear: Catholics who attend Mass weekly have a significantly different attitude profile—a 6 to 12 percent difference—from those who don’t, especially on issues like contraception, abortion, and the male priesthood.

Making this simple and obvious distinction would have reversed most of Zogby’s conclusions.

Wagner also discovered a correlation between Mass attendance and the steady migration of Catholics toward the middle and right of the political spectrum. Zogby’s raw numbers ignore this significant phenomenon.

For example, if only 31 percent of self-proclaimed Catholics identify with the Republican Party, how does Zogby explain the 47 percent of Catholics who voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election? And, of course, he completely ignores the more significant number—the 57 percent of religiously active Catholics who voted for Bush.

The Crisis Catholic vote survey received wide comment in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Reporters fastened onto the distinction between practicing Catholics and non-practicing Catholics, while veteran commentators like Robert Novak and Michael Barone applauded the work.

The only negative voice came from (surprise!) Rev. Andrew Greeley in Jesuit-run America Magazine. He complained that the Crisis survey was wrong to use Mass attendance as the sole criterion of religious activity. What other criteria Father Greeley had in mind, he didn’t say.

Father Greeley, Zogby, and the scholars at Le Moyne all share a common agenda. William Barnett, a professor of religious studies at Le Moyne, hints at it: “People like the pope, but don’t want the pope telling them what to do in the bedroom.” Indeed, all the news coverage of the Zogby survey underscored the gap between many nonpracticing Catholics and the Holy Father on key issues.

Zogby himself thinks that pressure from dissenters may soon change Church teaching: “There are signs that Catholics might nudge the Church in new directions.”

His assumption—one presumably shared by those who commissioned the poll—is that the Church must conform herself to majority dissent (even where a pseudo-majority is manufactured by bad polling). This is a real shame. Observing the widening gap between religiously active and inactive Catholics provides an important lesson: Participation in the sacramental life of the Church makes a substantial difference in a person’s values and beliefs.

Certainly, it’s important to know what inactive Catholics are thinking. Nevertheless, by refusing to distinguish them from those who regularly encounter the Word of God at Mass, agenda-driven pollsters create confusion and ambiguity where there should be clarity and truth.

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