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Law's words frame new play

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Spotlight Report

Catholics favoring priesthood changes

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/10/2002

 Poll results
Poll results
Catholics' opinions on...
Law and the priest abuse cases
The priesthood and church policy

Complete list of poll questions and results (Plain text file)

 Related stories
Most Catholics fault Law

 Parenting concerns
Children aware, parents say

Most local Catholic parents polled said they have discussed the issue of clergy sexual abuse with their children, but that the pedophilia scandal will not affect their willingness to allow their children to participate in church life. Forty percent of the parents said that what they have learned about the sexual abuse of children by priests has caused them to inform their children, and another 18 percent said they already knew of the risk of clergy sexual abuse and had discussed it with their children. Another 36 percent of local parents said they have not discussed the issue with their children, according to a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

Just over one-quarter of Catholic parents polled - 28 percent - said what they have learned about the sexual abuse of children by priests has caused them concern about sending their children to church alone, but 60 percent of Catholic parents said they do not share that concern.

Parents are slightly more concerned when it comes to the question of allowing their children to become altar servers - 34 percent of parents said what they have learned about clergy sexual abuse has made them reluctant to see their children take on that role, while 56 percent said it has not.

Perhaps most discouraging for a church suffering from a declining number of vocations: 61 percent of Catholic parents said they would not be likely to encourage their children to become priests or nuns. Just 9 percent of Catholic parents said they would be very likely to encourage their children to pursue such vocations, and 13 percent said they would be somewhat likely to do so.

As the local Catholic Church reels from a clergy sexual abuse scandal, area Catholics surveyed overwhelmingly believe that the church should abandon its millennium-old policy of restricting the priesthood to celibate men.

Large majorities of Boston-area Catholics say the church should open up the ranks of clergy to women and to noncelibate men, according to a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

And, reflecting a national trend that has developed over the past three decades, most local Catholics reject the church's moral authority in the arena of sexual ethics, dissenting from church teachings on birth control, divorce, homosexuality, and premarital sex. Even on the subject of abortion, which the church adamantly opposes, local Catholics diverge from church teachings: A slight plurality support abortion rights.

The archdiocese-wide survey of 800 adult Catholics was taken Feb. 4-6 by KRC/Communications Research. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

There is no evidence that the local clergy sexual abuse scandal, which has led the Archdiocese of Boston to submit to local prosecutors the names of up to 87 priests suspected of molesting children over the past four decades, has caused local Catholics to change their positions on church teachings.

In fact, sociologists say that American Catholics have been increasingly willing to disobey church teachings, particularly when it comes to sexual morality, especially since 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued a condemnation of artificial contraception that has been widely ignored.

''It's too soon to expect a direct relationship - I don't think people say the cardinal and the hierarchy can't be trusted, and therefore I'm changing my mind about homosexuality,'' said Thomas M. Landy, a sociologist who serves as associate director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. ''But the church's voice on sexual matters is muzzled by this. It will now be very difficult for the church to speak credibly on these issues. For example, when the Defense of Marriage Act [barring same-sex marriages] comes up in Massachusetts, I think it will be difficult for the church to speak out without inviting ridicule. I definitely believe what has happened is going to undermine the church's teaching ability.''

Support for the ordination of married men and women has risen significantly among American Catholics over the past quarter-century, and that support is reflected in the local poll, which found that 74 percent of local Catholics disagree with the church's teaching that priests should remain celibate, and 65 percent of local Catholics disagree with the church's position that women should not be ordained as priests.

There is strong support for allowing priests to marry among every group of Catholics, regardless of age, income, or frequency of Mass attendance. There is also broad support for women's ordination, with one exception: a narrow plurality of Catholics over age 65 oppose the ordination of women.

The Roman Catholic Church has always restricted the priesthood to men, often citing the fact that Jesus had only male apostles, and for the past 25 years the Vatican has essentially declared that the subject of women's ordination is not up for debate. The Catholic Church is not alone in restricting its priesthood to women - Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and some schools of Buddhism also bar women from clerical positions.

But the Catholic Church is increasingly alone in its demand that its all-male clergy take vows of celibacy - a requirement that evolved over the church's first millennium and was broadly imposed in the 11th century by Pope Gregory VII. Orthodox Christianity allows its priests - but not its bishops - to marry, and even in the Catholic Church there are a handful of married priests who were ordained in other Christian denominations but then decided to become Catholic priests.

Even as the number of priests in the Catholic Church has plummeted, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, like many other Catholic bishops, has been unwilling to engage in a discussion of the ordination of women or married men. Asked about the subject at a news conference Jan. 24, he responded simply, ''That's not a question for me to decide.''

But advocates for a change have seized on the pedophilia cases as evidence that restricting the priesthood to celibate men is not working.

''We consider the shortage of priests, and the troubles that are now going on, as a sign that women need to be in positions of decision-making,'' said Barbara J. Mahar of Massachusetts Women-Church, a group that advocates for the ordination of women. The group is now encouraging Catholics to place fake dollar bills in Sunday collection baskets saying they are withholding money until women are ordained.

''There are many, many women, not only in New England but nationwide, who feel called to ordination,'' Mahar said. ''The hierarchy will not even allow them to test that call.''

The disagreement that local Catholics express on church teachings reflects national trends, according to sociologists who have polled American Catholics in recent years.

''Our laity distinguish between core issues - the life and death of Jesus, the Eucharist, and the Resurrection - and matters the laity consider to be peripheral, such as marriage, divorce, remarriage, birth control, and nonmarital sex,'' said William V. D'Antonio, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who has written several books on Catholic public opinion in the United States.

''They say they are following church teaching by using their faith and reason to form their conscience, and when they form their conscience, they find themselves in a different place than the hierarchy,'' he said.

Opposition to church teaching is strongest on the issue of birth control. The church teaches that artificial contraception - any method of birth control other than abstaining from sex when a woman is ovulating - is always wrong. But 70 percent of local Catholics say they disagree with church teaching in this area.

Catholics are also overwhelmingly unhappy with the church's posture toward divorce, with 63 percent saying they disagree with church teaching. The church does not recognize the validity of civil divorce, and requires that individuals who have been divorced seek an annulment if they want to get remarried within the church.

A majority - 54 percent - of local Catholics say they disagree with the church's opposition to premarital sex. But a large majority of those over age 65 still support the ban on sex before marriage.

Most Catholics - 51 percent - also say they disagree with the church's teachings on homosexuality, with just 33 percent saying they agree. Official church teaching, which has evolved over the years, is that being gay is acceptable but having gay sex is not morally permissible.

The church's opposition to abortion is perhaps the most clearly understood church teaching, but the topic appears to be a tough call for Catholics, as for other Americans. Of those polled last week, 48 percent said they disagree with church teachings on abortion, while 44 percent said they agree. But there are huge differences among Catholics on this issue, with a majority of those who go to church at least once a month, who are over age 65, or who earn less than $80,000 a year opposing abortion rights, but a majority of those who go to church less than once a month, those who are under age 65, and those who earn more than $80,000 a year supporting abortion rights.

A plurality of Boston-area Catholics support church teachings only in one of the areas on which the Globe/WBZ-TV polled: the death penalty. Asked whether they agree with church teachings on the death penalty, 43 percent said they agree, and 39 percent said they disagree. But sociologists cautioned that many Catholics may not clearly understand that the church opposes the death penalty. National polls have suggested that most Catholics, like most Americans, support the death penalty.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/10/2002.
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