Since 1941, The Gallup Poll has maintained an Index of Leading Religious Indicators -- a broad, annual assessment of religiosity among Americans, which is based on a series of Gallup questions relating to religious beliefs and practices. The Index combines responses to these questions compiled throughout the year, producing an aggregated annual "score."
The highest possible point on the Index is a score of 1,000. The latest figure, for the year 2003*, stands at 648 -- a seven-point gain over the 2002 score of 641. The 2002 figure was the lowest recorded since we created the Index more than six decades ago.
Views of Catholics May Play Big Role
In light of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, the news of which first broke in early 2002, the attitudes of Catholics toward their church and clergy have almost certainly played a significant role in the movement of the Index figures over the past two years. The annual Index score for 2002 represented a 30-point drop from the 2001 score of 671, a drop that may be largely attributable to the Catholic Church scandals. It appears, however, that the apparent impact of the scandals may have been short-term. Catholic church attendance appears to be rebounding somewhat (see "Does the Catholic Church Still Need Saving?" in Related Items).
But two of the measures used for the Index -- confidence in organized religion and ratings given to the ethical standards of clergy -- continue to show volatility. Half of Americans now express confidence in organized religion -- that's down 10 percentage points from 2001, but up from the 45% who expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in 2002. Very high or high ratings for the ethical standards of the clergy are up slightly from 2002, with 56% of Americans giving these ratings in 2003, compared with 52% last year. However, this figure is still down eight points from 2001 (from 64% to 56%).
Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released its first annual audit of church procedures for handling sex abuse cases, in an attempt to prevent further sexual abuse by priests and to restore parishioners' confidence in the Catholic Church. One hundred and ninety-one individual dioceses were audited by outside examiners, who were mostly former FBI agents, and they found only 20 dioceses not in compliance. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of conference, said of the audit, "The audit results represent solid progress on the journey toward fulfilling the vision set out in the charter. I believe that these findings show that we bishops are keeping our word." This is indeed a good beginning in what promises to be a long climb among Catholics to restore their confidence -- and in turn the Index of Leading Religious Indicators -- to the levels they had attained before the scandals broke.
*The 2003 Religion Index was compiled from surveys of national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted throughout the year.