Praying the Post

Reading the newspaper with a cup of coffee in one hand and a rosary in the other.

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Friday, November 14, 2003
Catholic and non-Catholic systems

There's an old (and not very funny) mathematics joke that to classify systems as either linear or non-linear makes about as much sense as classifying animals as either elephants or non-elephants. (See, almost all interesting systems are non-linear, and ... oh, never mind.)

If you want to talk sensibly about the Catholic Church, though, I think you really do need to understand that human institutions are classified as either the Church or non-Church institutions. ("The Church" includes the Orthodox.)

Failure to understand this can lead you to be quoted in The Washington Post like this:
"If the bishops faced reelection today, they'd be in serious trouble," said John Zogby, president of Zogby International, which conducted the survey.
And if the bishops were elephants, they'd be striding majestically across the savannah.

My point is, the bishops are not facing reelection today, and the fact that they aren't isn't simply an accident of canon law. Bishops are not politicians. They are not CEOs, they are not regional vice-presidents. I don't expect Washington Post reporters to realize that, but Catholics should.

I thought the most interesting statistics were these:
Eighty-two percent of the ordinary Catholics and 73 percent of the "opinion leaders" said bishops who knowingly transferred priests to cover up for sexual abuse of children should be forced to resign.
Two-thirds of the opinion leaders gave bishops a negative job approval rating; Catholics in general split evenly, 49 percent positive to 48 percent negative.
So "ordinary Catholics" were more likely to want a bishop to resign under certain circumstances, but "opinion leaders" were far more negative about the bishops.

I suspect that the "opinion leaders" polled -- "100 prominent Catholic executives, professors, writers, foundation heads and government officials" -- have far more opinions about what the bishops should do than the "1,004 ordinary Catholics." Ordinary Catholics, in my experience, want their bishop to leave their beloved pastor in place and to keep child rapists away from children.

Opinion leaders want ... well, all manner of things, depending on the leader's opinions. Some want their bishop to stand up to Rome, others want him to stand with Rome. The idea that a group of 100 prominent Catholics speak with a single statistical voice is, shall we say, debatable.

What would be very interesting is to see how approval of the bishops' performance tracks with approval of one's own performance as a lay Catholic. But to ask such a question would require recognition that, as polling subjects, Catholics are different from potential voters, TV viewers, or beer drinkers.