A poll by Spanish-language broadcaster Univision shows Catholics in Asia and Africa, where the Church is growing fastest, expressing strong support for Church teachings.
The poll of self-identified Catholics in 12 countries showed high approval of Pope Francis, but split on subjects such as abortion, priests being able to marry and same-sex marriage.
The split underscores what is perhaps one of Pope Francis’s most pressing challenges as he attempts to implement change in the church. He must attend to fast-growing congregations in less affluent areas such as Africa, while renewing the enthusiasm of Catholics in Europe and the Americas, where the faithful are increasingly leading lifestyles contrary to church teachings.
“It’s clear that the major division in the Catholic world isn’t so much the global North-South but the Americas and Europe versus Africa and Asia,” said Andrew Chesnut, who holds the Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It’s a tough balancing act, but not an impossible one, Prof Chesnut said, explaining that Pope Francis’s “unique combination of a preferential option for the poor meshed with an appreciation of charismatic worship will help him bridge some of these major cleavages in the global Church”.
Pope Francis’s personal appeal helps, too: 87 per cent of Catholics worldwide rate his job performance as “excellent” or “good.” However, in Mexico, 26 per cent of respondents rated the pontiff “mediocre” or “poor”.
“Most political leaders would be quite envious of his poll numbers,” said Jesuit Fr James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College. “He has the broadest appeal of any pope since Pope John XXIII.”
But he wondered why an American-style approval poll was being applied to the Pope.
“I don’t think democratic poll numbers reflect genuinely what should be called the sensus fidelium”, or the sense of the faithful, he said. “It’s more complex than these kinds of surveys are going to allow.”
Still, the survey captured a snapshot of the views and values of more than 12,000 Catholics on the eve of the first anniversary of Pope Francis being elected in March 2013. It also comes as the Vatican carries out its own survey of Catholics in advance of a Synod of Bishops on the family in October. Survey details from Germany and Switzerland – countries not surveyed by Univision – were released in early February and found the faithful often living lives contrary to church teachings on family and sexuality.
“If you map [the German numbers] on to this Univision survey, you would find confirmation of the basic trends,” Fr Bretzke said.
“Clearly opinion about concrete moral issues is changing, and the older way of looking at [controversial practices] as an intrinsic evil, that kind of concept is clearly not winning the day anymore among most people,” he said.
Some secular media covering the survey delved into the divisions among Catholics in disparate countries, causing consternation for some churchmen, whose ministries take them to many of the places being polled.
“A lot of what these numbers reflect is where complex issues are not well understood by the majority of lay Catholics,” Fr Bretzke said.
“Anyone who has travelled around the world and knows the Church has seen these differences,” said Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the US bishops’ office on Latin America. “What unites us is the faith and being Catholics.”
Others questioned if people in some countries were actually living what they were saying in the survey.
“People here would be very conservative [in their answers], which doesn’t mean in their actions,” said American priest Fr Robert Coogan, a prison chaplain in Saltillo, Mexico.
The survey, conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International, gauged the opinions of Catholics in the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Philippines, Uganda and Congo.
Sixty-nine per cent said they attend Mass frequently. Approximately 30 per cent described themselves as infrequent Mass attendees, defined for the purposes of the study as those who attend service only a few times a year, such as major holidays, and those who never attend services.
Analysts and observers spotted some tendencies.
Uganda and Congo showed 98 per cent opposition to same-sex marriages, while the Philippines was 84 per cent against. The three countries also were the only ones with majorities saying abortion “should not be allowed at all”.
A third of Catholics worldwide surveyed agreed abortion “should not be allowed at all” and 57 per cent said it “should be allowed in some cases.”
Mexico and Colombia tended to trend more conservative than Brazil and Argentina. Rural respondents in Mexico and Argentina were more likely to support church teachings than others surveyed, the authors said.
Other findings included:
- Majorities in Europe, Latin America and the United States disagreed with divorce rules denying Communion to those who remarry outside the Church. The two African nations were 75 per cent in agreement.
- Seventy per cent in Africa and 76 per cent in the Philippines opposed priests marrying and 70 per cent in Europe expressed the opposite opinion. US Catholics were 61 per cent in favour of priests marrying; Latin American countries split on the issue.
- Majorities in France, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina supported the ordination of women as priests. Some 59 per cent of US Catholics also approved.
- Only respondents in Uganda and Congo showed less than two thirds support for contraceptive use, although Fr Bretzke noted, “the hot item is whether you can use condoms to prevent Aids”.