Conclave 2013: Catholics Believe Priests Should Be Allowed to Marry, Says New Study

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, American Catholics are not unlike the Catholic Church: full of contradiction. On the one hand, 58% of those polled believe it would be a “good thing” if the next pope allowed priests to marry (as opposed to 35% who believe it would be a bad thing). On the other hand, a narrow majority — 51% to 46% — believe the next pope should “maintain traditional positions,” rather than move in “new directions.”    

As with any poll, the wording of the questions can affect how people answer them, but it does raise the questions: To what extent should the Church lead or act ahead of public opinion? Can it? And more importantly, will it?

What lies behind these statistics are guesses and assumptions at best, but perhaps the contradictions and even splits in opinion may offer some insight. Those who attend Church regularly — at least once a week — were more likely to support holding fast to tradition. Could it be because we want to defend those institutions of which we are a part, in which we have invested ourselves?

The questions and the focus of the report are, in and of themselves, compelling. The report is structured in two parts: looking forward to the next pope and reflections on Pope Benedict XVI. Respondents were asked about priests marrying but not, apparently, about their attitudes about the church allowing women to become priests. Often these questions go hand in hand; in fact, some respondents, when asked to volunteer what could be done to move the church in “new directions,” offered such a response or highlighted gender equity. It is problematic and frustrating that such a question appears to have been left out. The report then goes on to note that a majority of Catholics feel that Pope Benedict XVI has done an “only fair/poor” job of addressing the sex abuse scandals within the priesthood.

It is unclear why American Catholics feel it would be a good thing for priests to marry. Pew chose its questions, I imagine, because they are the hot-button issues, the ones the public most often associates with the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, they are questions that hint at thechurch’s problems with gender and sexuality. Admittedly, I am someone who sees and always will see the church, its politics and policies, as inherently gendered. More often than not, I see those gendered politics, policies, and even theologies, as contestable and disordered.

A recent poll from Quinnipiac University shows similar contradictions to the Pew poll: 51% of adult Catholics felt the church was “moving in the right direction” but nearly the same percentage (52%) feel that the church’s leaders are out of touch with American Catholics.

In so many ways, it is the same old story of a bifurcated church, the difference between the church — the “Nuns on a Bus,” the regular churchgoers who believe in marriage equality, and the Catholic school teachers who are paid less than their public school counterparts because they believe in the value of religious education — and the church — the men who will be locked in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday. American Catholics are as torn as ever, it appears, between a legitimate reverence for the oldest institution in the Western World and a frustration with the extent to which it appears to be decaying from the inside, too old to understand their lives.

As a non-Catholic who has spent a significant amount of time around and learning about Catholics, I am always amazed that the church seems to have forgotten the promise of the Second Vatican Council. Nearly fifty years ago, the church underwent a transformation, an effort to remember history but strip away those things that separated its hierarchy from its people and mission. To some, this meant not just women priests, or married priests, but a reorganization of the priesthood entirely, making the people of the church the leadership of the church. This radical promise has not been fulfilled and it is easy to share Frances Kissling’s frustration that it never will.

Pew’s new poll shows that American Catholics are divided within themselves, but that they want a more modern church — apparently one with a lot less celibacy. I applaud that sentiment — it is one that is theologically, politically, historically, and psychologically sound (but that is another article). Still, I find it hard to believe that the current church hierarchy will produce someone who will enact such radical and drastic changes.