Newsflash! Not all Catholics think alike!

Hey! Did you know that a lot of Catholics actually disagree with church teachings? To put it another way: Have you been ignoring all polls, and not talking to any Catholics, on the matter for the last quarter-century or more?

If so, let Univision and the Washington Post get you up to speed. A brand-spankin'-new poll reveals that "Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception," according to a breathless article in the Post.

Well, OK, it's more nuanced than that. The article says the poll shows divisions among Catholics worldwide and a challenge for their still-new Papa:

Between the developing world in Africa and Asia, which hews closely to doctrine on these issues, and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America, which strongly support practices that the church teaches are immoral.

The widespread disagreement with Catholic doctrine on abortion and contraception and the hemispheric chasm lay bare the challenge for Pope Francis’s year-old papacy and the unity it has engendered.

A companion piece in the Post lays out some of the numbers in big, colorful tiles, rather like the Windows 8 "Metro" desktop. Among the results:

  • 87 percent of Catholics say Pope Francis is doing a good or excellent job.
  • 99 percent of Ugandan Catholics oppose gay marriage, compared with 27 percent of Catholics in Spain.
  • 78 percent of Catholics support the use of contraception (but what kinds, they apparently weren't asked).
  • 65 percent of Catholics say abortion should be allowed in some or all cases.
  • 30 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage.

It sounds pretty systematic, but the Post, to its credit, notes a weakness:

The poll, which was done by Bendixen & Amandi International for Univision, did not include Catholics everywhere. It focused on 12 countries across the continents with some of the world’s largest Catholic populations. The countries are home to more than six of 10 Catholics globally.

What I sought in vain was a comparison with some previous polls. Just before Pope John Paul II's 1987 U.S. visit, a New York Times-CBS News poll indicated that most American Catholics respected the pope but disagreed with him on issues like divorce, birth control and women's ordination. I.e., rather like the freshly minted poll.

The Post did note -- around the last quarter of the story, long after the lede -- that the Univision poll "mirrored ones that show U.S. Catholics support married priests, female priests, abortion and contraception." It made no direct comparisons on findings, though.

The article uses a think-tanker for context, but not very well:

“This is a balancing act. They have to hold together two increasingly divergent constituencies. The church has lost its ability to dictate what people do,” said Ronald Inglehart, founding president of the World Values Survey, an ongoing global research project.

“Right now, the less-developed world is staying true to the old world values, but it’s gradually eroding even there. [Pope Francis] doesn’t want to lose the legitimacy of the more educated people,” he added.

So the church really wants to rewind history and "dictate?" And Catholic beliefs equal "old world values?" Kinda jaded there, Ronald. And he offers no evidence that such values are eroding in the so-called less developed world.

Better contexting here:

"Pope Francis appears particularly eager to engage with divisions around sex, marriage and gender and has called a rare 'extraordinary synod' this fall on 'The Pastoral Challenges of the Family.' For that, he has asked bishops to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things."

In one interesting observation, the Post places Latin America somewhere between the more conservative Asians and Africans and the more liberal Americans and Europeans. Even there, the piece qualifies, stark differences can surface inside nations, depending on the topic.

You can also do your own contexting, of course: The Post provides a link to the Univision poll itself. At least the next time you read a poll, you can remember this one.

Illustration: Sigurd Decroos via sxc.hu

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