Good Catholic info, sort of, but lousy 'Catholic' headline

Right now, editors in major newsrooms are doing everything they can to cover the papal horse race over at the Vatican. It's crunch time. Thus, journalists are asking questions such as these:

How will the cardinals vote?

What are they doing to campaign and win votes?

What are the political issues that are being debated?

What are the names of the factions?

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, based on their stances on the political issues that matter to editors?

Who is most likely to favor the changes in ancient doctrines that the editors would like to see made?

At the heart of all this, as of late, is the drive to understand "what Catholics want" from a new pope. This leads to polls built on the assumption that there are people called "normal Catholics" who can be polled and plugged into the questions listed above.

Oh my. That sound you hear, after reading all of this, is the sound of church-going, active, doctrinally minded Catholics screaming, because framing a papal election in these terms -- for them -- is kind of like listening to fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

This produces headlines such as the following, care of The Washington Post:

Poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics favor change

The top of the story under this headline is oh so typical:

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, the poll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

I am happy to report that, right after this newsy train wreck, the reporting team -- as opposed to the headline writing team -- got its act together and alerted readers to the reality behind these numbers.

In other words, the word "Catholic" is now pretty much meaningless, unless one knows to degree to which the person wearing that adjective is active in practicing the traditions of the faith.

The seemingly contradictory results reflect a schism between regular churchgoers and those who attend church less frequently. Catholics who go nearly weekly are more likely to say they want the new pope to maintain traditions. Those who go less frequently are more apt to favor change. ...

The Post-ABC poll finds 55 percent of Catholics opposing the ban on married priests, while 58 percent oppose the prohibition on female priests. About a third say they want to keep the priesthood male and unmarried.

That sounds about right, in a land in which fewer than 10 percent of the "Catholics" ever go to Confession.

The problem is that, having established this clear line between the practicing Catholics and the Catholics who are not active in the church, the story delivers no addition information on how this reality is reflected in other issues facing the church. To be blunt, there is no way to know -- in this report -- if this poll contains information that would help readers understand the choices facing Catholic leaders.

With that in mind, and as we all watch events unfold in Rome, let me remind GetReligion readers of this weblog's handy typology of Catholic "voters," which grew out of conversations with a veteran Catholic priest active in Beltway life. It looks something like this:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (perhaps even many Latinos) lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter … depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. These voters are regulars in the pews and may even fill leadership roles in their parishes. These are the Catholic voters that are really up for grabs, the true swing voters that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to Confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Note that this grid draws lines INSIDE the mythical whole called "American Catholicism" and even among the church-going camp that is mentioned in the polls, including this Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As we all wait for news from Rome, please share some URLs -- in the comments pages -- for poll-driven stories that do a good job, or a bad job, of reflecting some of the dividing lines inside the "Catholic" camp.

Stay tuned.

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