What American Catholics Want From The Next Pontiff

As the conclave to select a new pope gets under way at the Vatican, what do American Catholics want from the next pontiff? Renee Montagne speaks with Greg Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about their most recent survey.

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Awaiting the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel are many of the 75 million Catholics in the U.S., and the question comes up, what do American Catholics want to see in the next pope? The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life explored that question in recent surveys. Here with the findings is Pew senior researcher Greg Smith. Good morning.

GREG SMITH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, a new pope, of course, is all about a certain amount of change at the top. Let's start with talking about what Catholics in this country want to see in the way of change with this new pope.

SMITH: Well, it's very interesting. When you ask Catholics about their hopes and aspirations for the next pope, we certainly see a desire and an openness to change in certain ways. But it's accompanied by an appreciation for the church's traditions at the same time. Most Catholics tell us, for example, that it would be good if the next pope allows priests to get married. And six in 10 Catholics tell us it would be good if the next pope comes from the developing world - from Africa or Asia or Latin America. But at the same time, when we ask Catholics directly, do you think the next pope should move the church in new directions or maintain the church's traditional positions, Catholics are about evenly divided.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's not likely that the next pope will make changes on some very key issues in the church, like contraception and its view of homosexuality, but does that not mean a big split will remain between the views of the church and the views of many lay Catholics in this country?

SMITH: Well, we certainly do see a divide between the expressed opinions of Catholics in the United States and the official positions of the hierarchy. For example, when it comes to contraception, three-quarters of Catholics tell us that using birth control is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue. Just 15 percent of Catholics say that using birth control is morally problematic. See the same kind of thing when it comes to issues related to homosexuality. Catholics in the United States increasingly tell us, for example, that they think it's OK to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married, obviously something that runs counter to the official positions of the church.

MONTAGNE: Does that mean, though, that American Catholics have gotten comfortable with having positions that differ quite dramatically from church teachings on some very - what you might call private in-the-home issues?

SMITH: Well, I think that's certainly the case. And I should point out that on many of these issues we do see differences between the most religiously observant Catholics - those who say they attend Mass at least once a week, and those who attend Mass less often. Regular Mass-attending Catholics tend to be more in line with the positions of the church. But even among those Catholics who tell us they attend Mass regularly, there are considerable numbers who disagree with the church's positions on a variety of issues.

MONTAGNE: How heavily do the sex abuse scandals weigh on the minds of American Catholics as this process gets under way?

SMITH: Well, you know, the sex abuse scandal and the church's handling of the scandal is a real concern for many American Catholics. When we asked Catholics just to tell us in their own words what they think the most important problem facing the Catholic Church today is, the most common response we get relates to the scandal. About one-third of Catholics say that the scandal and the church's response to it is the most important problem facing the church today. And when we ask those Catholics who tell us they want the next pope to head in new directions what they mean by that, there again, a more strict response, a more concerted, a better handling of the sex scandal is one of the things that people mention. So this is a real concern for American Catholics.

MONTAGNE: Greg Smith is a senior researcher with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Thank you very much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

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