Roman Catholics in the United States say that their church and bishops are out of touch, and that the next pope should lead the church in a more modern direction on issues like birth control and ordaining women and married men as priests, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
Seven of 10 say Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican have done a poor job of handling sexual abuse, a significant rise from three years ago.
A strong majority said the issue had led them to question the Vatican’s authority. The sexual abuse of children by priests is the largest problem facing the church, Catholics in the poll said.
Three-fourths of those polled said they thought it was a good idea for Benedict to resign.
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Most wanted the next pope to be “someone younger, with new ideas.” A majority said they wanted the next pope to make the church’s teachings more liberal.
With cardinals now in Rome preparing to elect Benedict’s successor, the poll indicated that the church’s hierarchy had lost the confidence and allegiance of many U.S. Catholics, an intensification of a long-term trend.
They like their priests and nuns, but many feel that the bishops and cardinals do not understand their lives.
“I don’t think they are in the trenches with people,” said Therese Spender, 51, a homemaker in Fort Wayne, Ind., who said she attended Mass once a week and agreed to answer further questions after the poll. “They go to a lot of meetings, but they are not out in the street.”
Even Catholics who frequently attend Mass said they were not following the bishops’ lead on issues that the church had recently invested much energy, money and credibility in fighting — artificial birth control and same-sex marriage.
Eric O’Leary, 38, a funeral director in Des Moines, Iowa, who attends Mass weekly, said: “I would like them not to be so quick to condemn people because of their sexual preference or because of abortion, or to refuse priests the right to get married or women to be priests. I don’t think the church should get involved in whether or not people use birth control.”
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted on landlines and cellphones Feb. 23-27, when many Catholics were still absorbing news of the first resignation of a pope in 600 years. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the 580 Catholics, who were oversampled for purposes of analysis in the survey of 1,585 adults.
When asked which “one thing” they would “most like to see the next pope accomplish,” the most common responses that respondents volunteered were, in order: bring people back to church, modernize the church, unify the church, and do something about sexual abuse.
Majorities said they wanted to see the next pope maintain the church’s opposition to abortion and the death penalty, even though they themselves were not opposed to them. Three-quarters of Catholics supported abortion under at least some circumstances, and three-fifths favored the death penalty. On every other hotly debated issue, Catholics wanted the next pope to lead the church in an about-face.
Seven of 10 Catholics surveyed said the next pope should let priests marry, let women become priests and allow the use of artificial methods of birth control.
Sixty-two percent of Catholics said they were in favor of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Catholics approved of same-sex marriage at a higher rate than Americans as a whole, among whom 53 percent approved.
John Sadel, 28, a supervisor in a plastics-production facility in Bethlehem, Pa., said, “I’m not saying change everything the church stands for, but you need to evolve with the times if you want to remain a viable religion.”