The LeMoyne/Zogby poll indicates some of the important challenges facing the Church, said LeMoyne College religious studies professor William Barnett.

The continuing dissent of many Catholics suggests that the U.S. bishops could better communicate the teaching of the Church to the faithful, Barnett said. But while he sees a challenge for the bishops in accommodating calls for more democracy and lay leadership, he does not sense that “people are going to leave in vast numbers” if that does not happen.

Over 61% of respondents to the poll say the Church should become more democratic in its decision-making, and more than 72% want the laity to be able to assume a greater role in leading the Church.

“It's a very American thing to want,” Kelly commented.

The American “streak of independence,” as well as the desire to have significant individual input, might also explain why there is still much dissent, even while Catholics give their leaders high job approval ratings. “It's a thoughtful, highly educated, prayerful and respectful people dealing with these issues,” Kelly said.

The results showing disagreement with Church teachings lead others to suggest that the flock is not being shepherded adequately. “More priests could speak more directly” to those issues, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

“Many Catholics are left to decide on their own, Donohue said. “Priests have been sending a message, even unwittingly, that this is a matter of personal choice. What we need is a dispassionate discussion as to why the Church teaches this way.”

—John Burger