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Posted April 11, 2007

Survey checks Catholic attitudes on immigration, terrorism, bishops

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A majority of Catholics in a nationwide telephone poll said the United States should begin a program to give undocumented immigrants an opportunity to earn permanent residency.

The poll also showed that more than 80 percent of those interviewed believed world economic problems, religious intolerance, world political instability and the history of conflict in the Middle East led to terrorism.

The Contemporary Catholic Trends poll, taken every six months by LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Zogby International polling firm, also showed that 70 percent either somewhat agree or strongly agree that the U.S. bishops are doing a good job leading the church. The figure is down from 71 percent in a poll taken last fall. The poll results were issued April 4.

Catholic attitudes on how well the bishops are doing their job seem to have a bearing on how Catholics responded to other questions in the poll. While 55 percent favored a plan to give permanent residency to undocumented immigrants, support was higher among those who think the bishops are doing a good job than among those who do not believe the bishops are doing a good job.

On a separate question, whether the U.S. government should reduce income differences between rich and poor, 50 percent of Catholics polled said the government should reduce income differences, while 45 percent disagreed; another 5 percent had no opinion. But support was higher for this idea -- 52 percent -- among those who believe the bishops are doing a good job. Conversely, the question gained the support of only 42 percent who thought the bishops were not doing a good job.

Both local pastors and Pope Benedict XVI scored higher approval ratings, 86 percent for each. But 68 percent of those polled strongly agreed their pastor was doing a good job, compared to 47 percent who strongly agreed the pope was doing a good job.

Asked whether the church was stronger or weaker since news of the clergy sex abuse scandals broke five years ago, 41 percent said the church is weaker, 31 percent felt there had been no change, and 23 percent believed it is stronger. But among those who follow the news of the U.S. bishops, a plurality of respondents felt the church had grown stronger, but that figure was still less than 40 percent.

Among those who feel the church is weaker after the scandals, a higher percentage, 48 percent, believe so if they were aware of a sex abuse allegation in their diocese. Support for the U.S. bishops' leadership is stronger among those unaware of clergy sex abuse allegations in their diocese, although Catholics by a 3-to-2 margin approved of the bishops' leadership even if they were aware of an abuse allegation.

The bishops enjoyed an 83 percent approval rating in the first Contemporary Catholic Trends poll in fall 2001. It dropped to a low of 58 percent in spring 2004 and had reached a 71 percent approval rating last fall before this spring's slight dip.

The poll consisted of phone interviews March 14-16 with 1,522 Catholics chosen nationwide from a Zogby-compiled database of self-identified Catholics from previous polls. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

The poll also revealed that 59 percent felt religion does not currently have enough influence in public life, while 15 percent said it had too much sway; another 23 percent said religion had the right amount of influence.

The numbers prompted an April 4 statement from William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, saying the data on religion's influence in public life have "deep ramifications" for presidential hopefuls.

"Protestants can be counted on to vote for the Republican nominee and Jews can be counted on to vote for the Democratic candidate. Catholics, on the other hand, have been in flux for the past few decades, and whoever wins their vote wins the White House," Donohue said. "The results of this latest poll suggest that Catholic voters will be most responsive to those candidates who support a more public role for religion."