There's good news, bad news and — in one strong sense — no news in the new extensive poll of Catholics in America.
We'll look at the “no news” first.
Imagine a poll that found 12% of nonsmokers regularly smoke Marlboro cigarettes. Commentators would spot the silliness of the statement immediately and ignore the poll. If anyone pushed them further, they would point out the flaws in the polling: Pollsters only surveyed people who identified themselves as nonsmokers in earlier polls; the subjects felt no contradiction between their smoking and their identity as nonsmokers.
A bit of the same thing has happened with the Zogby poll of Catholics that was commissioned by LeMoyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, N.Y. The only people polled were those who had told past pollsters that they were Catholic. Many of them are simply lapsed Catholics: They are not in communion with the Church, and may have no intention of ever being in communion with the Church.
Yet newspapers didn't catch this simple distinction.
The Chicago Tribune headline was: “Poll finds division among Catholics.” What would the headline of our fictional poll have been — “Poll finds division among nonsmokers over brands”?
The Associated Press ended its story about a woman who was recently “ordained” to the priesthood of the “old Catholic” church, by reporting the Zogby poll's show of support for women's ordination. Using our fictional poll, we doubt the wire service would have ended a story about the tobacco wars by reporting, “yet surprising new statistics show that even many non-smokers love Marlboros.”
One objection to this analysis that will be raised is that being Catholic is a permanent condition. There's something to that — but perhaps little. A poll of people who fill in the blank “religion” with the word “Catholic” and ascribe no meaning to it, isn't meaningful whether they have the right to use the word or not.
So, how can such “no news” bring both “good news” and “bad news”?
Because, even if these people have only a remote affinity to the Church, the poll gives us a snapshot of American views.
First, the good news.
Americans don't reject Catholic authority. There has been a sneaking suspicion in some parishes that the hierarchical nature of the Church is a flop. Not according to the numbers, it's not. In the poll, 90% feel Pope John Paul II is doing a good job; 85% feel the U.S. bishops are doing a good job.
Americans don't reject Catholic identity. In many corners of the Church, Catholics sometimes feel they need to be more like the world to be popular. Particularly in our universities, Catholics often have an inferiority complex about their Catholic identity, which they deny or hide. The poll shows they needn't. In it, 89% said their identity as Catholic is important to them; 71.5% of American Catholics consider it very important to stand up for and live according to their Catholic values.
The bad news is that there's a terrible lack of formation among these gungho Catholics. Only half think in vitro fertilization is wrong (or is the number surprisingly high, given the lack of discussion of this topic?). Only 28% think that extramarital sex is wrong; even 54% of weekly Mass goers have no problem with artificial contraception.
But this “bad news” comes with a challenge and hope.
The challenge: In 21st century America, it is up to the laity to evangelize the society — and to re-evangelize the Catholics of this poll. Even if bishops, priests and nuns redoubled their efforts, they wouldn't reach many of this group of people who rarely go to Mass.
But won't bishops and priests have a lot to answer for because of the state of today's Church, shown in polls like this? That's not for us to say, but it's clear that today's laity will have a lot to answer for if they don't respond to the pervasive problems this poll points to, problems which, given the situation, the laity can best solve.
That brings us, last, to the great hope that the poll should give us.
Beyond showing how receptive people are to hearing and “standing up for” their faith, it shows that bringing people back to Mass seems to bring them a long way toward accepting authentic Catholic doctrine.
And bringing people back to Mass is something we all can do. Right away.