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Religious Freedom


On August 1, Pew Research Center published a survey polling 619 Catholics (out of 2,973 adults). That survey claimed to show 56% of Catholics (and 41% of people of all beliefs) agreed with the Catholic bishops and 36% of Catholics (47% of people of all beliefs) disagreed with them[1]. As it seemed that the Pew survey focused on people getting their information about Catholic teaching from the mainstream press—including information about what the Catholic bishops say—we chose to do our own.

We wanted to see what people thought about what the bishops actually said. To do this, we designed a survey to present people with elements of the bishops’ teaching, then we let people tell us whether they agree or not with them on each element. Although this is an educational, not a scientific-sociological poll, the number of people responding from across the country give us a pretty good idea of what people think if you give them the chance to think. We encouraged those participating in the survey to pass it on to their non-Catholics friends, family, and other contacts to participate. As such, we got a response from 1,069 individuals, of which 83% were weekly Mass-going Catholics, 5% Catholics who do not go to Mass weekly, and 12% non-Catholic.

Being Catholic and Being American are Compatible

To help those grasp the bishops’ positions, I used an example of a family, where husband and wife (father and mother) carry out different but complementary roles in the family. Most people find this is a good parallel for understanding the role of the State (the U.S. Government) and the Catholic Church (or any religious entity). They find family situations concrete and close to home, helping them digest the abstract ideas found in general principles of ethics and moral behavior.

Just as both husband and wife seek the good of the family and of each one of the children, so the State and the Church ought to seek the good of those who are both American and Catholic. The Catholic Church does indeed cooperate with the U.S. Government in many charitable services administered to Americans—whether Catholic or not. Although each carry out their roles in separate realms, each one complement the other in the common good of those they serve.

So, when considering a family where the mother is a serious Catholic and the father is a non-believer, 98% of those responding thought that a child should love and be proud of both parents, since both mom and dad love the child and seek his good and the good of the whole family. It is to no surprise, then, that 93% agreed with the bishops who encourage American Catholics to love and be proud of both their Catholic Faith and their American heritage. The bishops see no opposition between being Catholic and being American; although distinct, one complements the other. Even 78% of non-Catholics agreed with the bishops here.

So, why did 9% of non-Catholics disagree with the bishops that American Catholics should love and be proud of both their Catholic Faith and American heritage, and 13% unsure (4 and 8% respectively of non-practicing Catholics also took this posture)? My hunch is that the media portrays Catholicism as so anti-American and anti-rational that they think it is impossible for a Catholic to be a good American. These people would be surprised to learn how positive and optimistic are both Catholic bishops and faithful toward their country and their American heritage.

Charity Toward Undocumented Immigrants

When considering laws dealing with undocumented immigrants, we gave the example of a mother who occasionally shares snacks and drinks with her children and their friends when they come over to play. Yet the husband threatens to “punish” her if she ever again shares family food or resources with “illegals,” even just to pray with them. Of course, 98% realize that the husband’s position is wrong (only 2% are unsure). So, if the government (like the father) were to prohibit the Church (the mother) from offering charity to children of undocumented immigrants, most would consider that prohibition morally objectionable.

We presented the Alabama law prohibiting clergy from ministering to undocumented immigrants.[2] Some respondents commented that they could not believe that it was possible for a state government to enact such a law. Similar to the response to the dominating father, 95% of respondent said they would condemn the law, just as the Catholic bishops had done.[3] An amazing 91% of non-Catholics agreed with the bishops, and 6% of them saying they are not sure.

Keeping Religion in the Closet

Although a number of Americans would prefer to expel the Church from the public square, this seems to be a much smaller group than one would expect from listening to the media, at least among those responding to this survey.

I first presented the case of a non-religious father who forbids his Catholic wife from taking their children to church on Sundays. He will allow their children to believe what they want and to pray as they wish at home in their own rooms—as long as it is done where no one else can see or hear it. No one is allowed to speak about or practice religion in any public way. This seems to be the attitude of many people in the media—and increasingly in the government—toward Christians and people of other religions. Yet 98% of those responding to the survey disagreed with the father’s approach to religion in the family.

Almost the same percentage (97%) agreed with the Catholic bishops when they say that religious liberty is more than just about being able to go to church on Sunday or to pray in private. The bishops also say that religious freedom means the freedom of speech wherein we can practice this faith in public without coercion from the State, including the ability to serve our fellow citizens in the name of Christ by educating the young, caring for the sick and poor, and to form other associations contributing to the social fabric of our society.

Yet the media’s influence has affected the non-Catholics and the non-practicing Catholics significantly: 6% of each group think that religion should remain in the closet, and 8 and 4 % respectively are unsure.

Freedom of Conscience

I presented the particular case where the non-religious father forces his Catholic wife to purchase cigarettes for their daughter because he doesn't want their daughter to neglect her studies by working to pay for her expensive habit: 98% disagreed with the father’s imposition on his wife.

When considering persons or human institution forcing another to act contrary to his conscience and religious beliefs—such as forcing Catholics to deny pastoral care to immigrants or mandating anyone to employ and pay for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs—92% agreed with the Catholic bishops that we must respect the Constitution and the U.S. laws that defend the right to religious liberty for all. I think that is astonishing! Even among non-Catholics, 67% agreed with the Catholic bishops on this.

Some may ask, why the difference between the example of the father forcing his wife to buy cigarettes for their daughter and the government forcing the Church to pay for sterilizations and drug-induced abortions. Most people can understand the wife’s or mother’s feeling of being imposed upon to do something she finds objectionable. It is harder for them to understand how Catholics feel when being imposed upon to do something they find objectionable. Similarly, many Jews find the imposition forbidding circumcision something objectionable, which is actually now being proposed in Germany, of all places. Perhaps it would have been better to use a closer example. Instead of a daughter using cigarettes, what if we put an example of a daughter with severe learning disabilities or bipolar disorder, and this time the father is forcing the mother—against her conscience—to have their daughter sterilized because he doesn’t want her to get pregnant and then forced to deal with the consequences. I think it may have been a better example.

Religious Freedom and American Heritage

We ended the survey with a series of quotes and historical facts about religious freedom in our nation’s history—these were taken from the Catholic bishops’ statement on religious freedom. 95 to 97% agreed with all the statements, the highest percentage going to the statement from the Second Vatican Council. Even 83% of non-Catholics agreed with the Second Vatican Council (5% disagreed, and 13% were unsure). So even non-Catholics perceive the influence of American Catholics, through the Holy Spirit, in the documents of Vatican II.

Why Do These Numbers Differ From the Pew Survey

One can say that the main difference between the two surveys is that Pew Survey used scientific criteria and mine did not. But if you read the comments to the questions—especially toward the end—you see that the respondents were not just friends of the author. The broad spectrum of respondents agreed on most questions.

I could adjust the numbers to better reflect a cross-section (as more practicing Catholics answer the survey than non-practicing Catholics or non-Catholics) I could weight the numbers based on that. But since the agreement is so consistent, that wouldn’t affect the numbers much.

The real difference is found in what the Pew Survey was attempting to discern: how many Catholics were going to vote for Obama vs. Romney. They simply were trying show that the bishops’ impact on the political realm was minimal or even negative. They were not trying to discern what people really think about these topics but how they responded to the bishops as presented by the media (where most got their information).

On the other hand, our survey focused on the issues raised by the bishops. Because of that, it shows a much greater concurance of thought with Catholic bishops.

Also, this survey showed that Catholics who go to Mass weekly are more motivated by this issue. I would conjecture that they are the one more motivate to go to voting polls as well. It's a thought, anyway.

--Fr. John R. Waiss

September 10, 2012