Image of Catholic Religion Slips

by Frank Newport

Thirty-nine percent of Americans now view Catholic religion unfavorably

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The Catholic religion has been under siege in the United States in recent weeks amid continuing revelations about the involvement of priests in sexual abuse cases, and the way in which the Catholic hierarchy has handled these incidents. American cardinals have returned from a special meeting with the pope at the Vatican to discuss the incidents and the church's response. News coverage of the conference has focused on the church's newly announced policy to recommend the removal of any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors."

Major Conclusion

The latest Gallup poll reveals that the image of the Catholic religion in the eyes of Americans has deteriorated over the past two years. In March 2000, a little less than two-thirds of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of the Catholic religion. Now, in a poll just completed, only about half of Americans have a favorable opinion. Both the current and the 2000 poll were conducted among the general population of America, which is approximately 25% Catholic. Analysis shows that Catholics are much more positive than others are about Catholicism, but that 17% of Catholics' opinions of the Catholic religion are negative. While it is impossible to say that the recent scandal has been the sole cause of the shift, it almost certainly has had an impact. The current poll also shows that slightly more than a majority of Americans say sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests is widespread. Previous polling has shown that a significant majority of Americans, including a large percentage of Catholics, say the leaders of the Catholic Church have done a bad job of handling the situation.

Details

  • The latest Gallup poll was conducted April 22-24, and shows that 52% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Catholic religion, while 39% have an unfavorable opinion. The comparable numbers from the March 17-19, 2000 Gallup poll are 64% favorable and 27% unfavorable.
  • Most Americans' views of the Catholic religion are not strongly held. Only 14% of Americans say they have a very unfavorable opinion of the Catholic religion, while 25% say their opinion is "mostly" unfavorable. At the other end of the spectrum, 14% have a very favorable opinion of the Catholic religion, while 38% have a mostly favorable opinion.
  • For comparison purposes, the poll also asked Americans about their opinion of "Protestant religions." (This question was not asked in the 2000 poll.) Sixty-eight percent of Americans say they have a favorable opinion of the Protestant religions, while just 16% have an unfavorable opinion.
  • There are differences in these opinions, as would be imagined, between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics break 81% favorable and 17% unfavorable in their view of their own religion. By way of contrast, just 47% of Protestants have a favorable opinion of the Catholic religion while almost as many, 43%, have an unfavorable opinion. Both groups have positive views of the Protestant religions. Seventy-eight percent of Protestants have a favorable opinion of Protestant religions, with 11% having an unfavorable opinion. Catholics are quite positive about Protestant religions themselves: 68% have a favorable opinion, while 14% have an unfavorable opinion. In other words, Catholics are more positive about the Protestant faith than are Protestants about the Catholic faith.
  • Americans who have an unfavorable opinion of the Protestant religions are also more likely to have an unfavorable opinion of the Catholic religion, and vice versa, suggesting that some of the negative opinions of both religions are based on a generalized negative reaction to religion.

Additional Key Points

  • The poll repeated a March 18-20 poll question asking Americans about their views of how widespread a problem sexual abuse is among Catholic priests. There has been essentially no change in this perception over the last month. In the March poll, 55% said abuse was widespread, and 56% say so today.
  • Again, for comparison purposes, the poll included a question that asked respondents if they felt that sexual abuse of young people by Protestant ministers was widespread. About one-quarter of Americans -- 26% -- say that it is.
  • Catholics are less likely than Protestants to say that sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church. Fifty-eight percent of Protestants say it is a widespread problem, compared to 45% of Catholics.

Implications

The fact that there has been no increase in American perceptions that sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests is widespread is presumably of some comfort to the Catholic Church. The fact that this figure is over 50%, however, is certainly not seen as good news.

Additionally, the drop in the favorable rating of the Catholic religion among the American public certainly suggests that the church faces a real and significant image problem. As noted above, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly why the percentage of Americans with a favorable opinion of the Catholic religion has fallen by 12 percentage points over the last two years. Since this is not a dimension we track every month, we do not know at what point the image began to deteriorate. The intense and focused publicity given the recent revelations about sexual abuse and the way in which the church has handled it certainly are contributing factors.

This poll was conducted Monday through Wednesday, April 22-24, and therefore most of the interviewing was completed before the news emanating from the Vatican of the decision to remove priests who are "serial" offenders, but not necessarily those who are first-time offenders. The impact that the outcome of this week's meetings will ultimately have on the attitudes of both Catholics and non-Catholics is unclear. The planned June meeting of bishops in Dallas to discuss the sexual abuse issue, as well, could produce new policies or rules that will affect attitudes toward the Catholic religion.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with -- 1,009 -- national adults, aged 18+, conducted April 22-24, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of -- 240 -- Catholics, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of -- 501 -- Protestants, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

How do you personally feel about the Catholic religion -- very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?

 

Very
favorable

Mostly favorable

Mostly unfavorable

Very unfavorable

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Apr 22-24

14

38

25

14

9

2000 Mar 17-19 ^

18

46

19

8

9

^

Asked of half sample.



How do you personally feel about the Protestant religions -- very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?

 

Very
favorable

Mostly favorable

Mostly unfavorable

Very unfavorable

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Apr 22-24

23

45

11

5

16



Do you think that sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests is a widespread problem in the United States, or not that widespread a problem?

 

Widespread

Not that widespread

No opinion

%

%

%

National Adults

2002 Apr 22-24

56

35

9

2002 Mar 18-20

55

35

10

Catholics

2002 Apr 22-24 ^

45

44

11

2002 Mar

55

40

5

1993 Aug 3-5

48

45

7

^

Based on -- 240 -- Catholics



Do you think that sexual abuse of young people by Protestant ministers is a widespread problem in the United States, or not that widespread a problem?

 

Widespread

Not that widespread

No opinion

%

%

%

National Adults

2002 Apr 22-24

26

58

16

Protestants

2002 Apr 22-24 ^

23

63

14

^

Based on -- 501 -- Protestants



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