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 Washington Notebook

January 21, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 3

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"If the church were a brand of cereal, we could find our grandchildren eating Unitarian Krispies as they get older."

John Zogby,
pollster studying American Catholic laity


The American Catholic church in Neverland

By Joe Feuerherd

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John Kerry's Iowa caucus victory was a surprise.

To nearly everyone, that is, except pollster John Zogby. The former political science professor saw it coming.

Zogby's caucus tracking polls were discounted by the political professionals and pundits because, according to conventional wisdom, Iowa's highly structured and community-orientated caucus system is not a primary; organization, not "message" or electoral momentum, was "everything."


Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi discounted Kerry's progress prior to the caucus. "It's the John Zogby surge," he told the New Republic. Rather than hold the caucus, suggested a sarcastic Trippi, "Why don't we just let John go out and say, 'he's it,' whoever it is."

In 2000, Zogby predicted the slim Gore popular vote victory; in 1996, he pegged Clinton's win over Bob Dole with precision.

So when Zogby turns his attention to American Catholics -- and his firm has polled nearly 4,000 of them over the past three years -- some consideration is due.

Speaking before 100-plus Catholic University of America students and faculty members Jan. 20, the day after Iowa, Zogby had the data to back up a harsh critique.

"The Catholic church in America risks becoming as strange and alien to Americans as Michael Jackson," he told the group.

Zogby termed his presentation, The American Catholic Laity, a "work in progress." He's still crunching numbers and drawing conclusions. But one result is clear: Americans, Catholics and non-Catholics, do not understand and will not support any institution that rejects accountability. "The tragedy of Bernard Law epitomizes the difficulties that the Catholic church confronts in America," declared Zogby.

"Law failed to appreciate that the legitimacy of spiritual leadership in America is ultimately subject to the very human and secular notions of legitimacy."

He continued: "…if comparisons between the Neverland Ranch and Vatican City seem impertinent, it is worth saying that Americans do not always distinguish between the grandeur of what is ancient and the fleeting nature; they do not respect institutions for this age; and while the music may be good, it is not a given that Americans will listen. Not without fundamentally addressing civil, secular accountability."

What would such accountability look like?

  • Fifty-eight percent of American Catholics say the church must become "more democratic."
  • Two-thirds say dioceses should "be required to disclose financial information."
  • Three-quarters believe "there should be greater participation by the laity to assist in the resolution of diocesan and parish problems."
  • And an overwhelming 82 percent say "any bishop who knowingly transfers a priest suspected of child abuse should resign." The implications of this particular finding, said Zogby, are "manifestly obvious."
American Catholics, said Zogby, are "Americans first, Catholics second." They "will not tolerate Catholic leaders who fail to acknowledge that their leadership is accountable to both God and man." Moreover, the Americanism of U.S. Catholics crosses doctrinal lines. "Both conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics are Americans first."

This portrait is enhanced when generational differences are considered. While older Catholics (those over age 65) and younger Catholics (ages 18-29) have similar views on church governance and secular political issues, they diverge on theology.

Eight-eight percent of older Catholics, for example, believe that Jesus "rose bodily from the dead," while only 29 percent of younger Catholics accept this fundamental tenant of the faith. Two-thirds of older American Catholics "believe there is something special about the Catholic church that is unavailable in other religions," while fewer than half of their younger counterparts agree with the statement.

Meanwhile, on issues such as abortion and stem cell research, the death penalty and priestly celibacy, American Catholics "have much more in common with American Protestants than they have in common with Catholics of other nations." The global church's conservatism, particularly in Southern Hemispheric nations that are a growth-center for the church, stands in sharp contrast to U.S. liberalizing instincts, said Zogby.

The requirement of accountability, combined with liberal theology among the young, does not bode well for a church that resists change.

"If so much of U.S. culture is focused on building brands among the young, it is worth considering how well the Catholic church performs among this critical demographic as a brand. The news is not good," said Zogby.

"If the church were a brand of cereal, we could find our grandchildren eating Unitarian Krispies as they get older."

Unlike Iowa, Zogby can't predict who will "win" -- the accountability seekers and theological liberals, the church traditionalists or theological conservatives.

What can be said with certainty is that something -- church governance, commitment to the faith, ideas of what constitutes core beliefs -- has got to give. The status quo will not hold.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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