ROME – Have you ever played the “Pope for a Day” game? It’s the one where you sit around with some Catholic friends and compare what you’d do if you were invested with supreme authority in the Catholic Church for just 24 hours.
My list is generally silly, not to mention impractical. For example, I’d love to make a pastoral visit to Kansas City and throw out the first pitch at a Royals game, but I doubt that could be pulled off in a day. By the time I got there I’d be a nobody again and they wouldn’t even let me on the field, let alone the mound.
However, here’s a more serious idea that might be borderline feasible: I’d commission one of the most reliable polling institutes in the world to conduct regular surveys of the global Catholic population on all the issues of importance in Catholic life at a given time. That information wouldn’t dictate the right choice on any given question, of course, because right and wrong isn’t decided by opinion polls, but it would at least truncate one of the most annoying habits in Catholic conversation.
To wit, lazy appeals to what “the people,” or “the laity,” or “the base” thinks.
The thought comes to mind apropos of a July 10 essay in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, a conservative newspaper founded by firebrand journalist Giuliano Ferrara. It’s often critical of Pope Francis and was at it again in this piece, which opened with the confident assertion that “the Catholic base would prefer the Church not become fossilized in economic-social concerns.”
The implication was that Francis is doing precisely that, and the piece quoted German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller to the effect that “he who prefers politics to God betrays the Gospel.”
“Most faithful think the same way,” the piece claimed.
Really? How do we know?
To cite just one problem, my experience is that what counts as “politics” for many Catholics is highly variable. For instance, I’ve heard progressive Catholics complain about the US bishops being overly “political” for their anti-abortion advocacy, but they never seem to feel that way when the same bishops stand up for immigrant rights or against racism. Then, they’re just being good pastors and fulfilling the Gospel.
Similarly, conservatives who today bemoan Francis’s overly “political” agenda are often the same people who want St. John Paul II to be called “The Great” in part for his role in the collapse of Soviet communism.
So, at least on this point, it really isn’t possible to talk about “the base” – unless, of course, the term is simply a placeholder for “me and people like me.”
Let’s do some basic math. There are roughly 1.3 billion Catholics in the world today, which means that even if 90 percent of them were to agree on something, that would still leave 130 million people who disagree, which is roughly the populations of the UK and Italy combined, or Mexico all by itself.
Moreover, those 1.3 billion Catholics are scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet, which means they represent a wildly diverse set of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. If you could get 90 percent of all those folks even to agree on what day it is, that would probably be a minor miracle, let alone on some highly contested issue.
Yet for all the talk about “the base” and “the grassroots,” no one really makes much of a serious effort to find out where they actually stand. The Pew Research Center does some surveys that can be very helpful. For instance, a 2013-14 poll found that overall, Latin American Catholics are divided on the question of married priests, with an average of 48 percent favorable. Support ranged from a low of 22 percent in Guatemala to a high of 66 percent in Uruguay.
On this one point, therefore, no one can make sweeping statements about what “Latin America” wants or thinks, because we’ve got the data to prove that not all Latin American Catholics think alike and opinion is actually fairly narrowly split.
The last time Pew surveyed American Catholics was in April, and the results showed that Pope Francis had a 77 percent approval rating. (For the record, the poll was taken before his remarkable March 27 Urbi et Orbi and what many see as his overall strong handling of the coronavirus disruptions.)
Of course, most Catholics are just hardwired to like the pope, whoever he is, but those results are still enough to take the edge off confident assertions – which one still hears in Rome and elsewhere, as if it’s conventional wisdom – that “American Catholics are anti-Francis.”
Yet these surveys are infrequent and often random in terms of topics surveyed. What I’d commission in my 24 hours as pope is a regular Gallup Poll for the global Catholic Church, surveying all manner of things, from current events to basic beliefs and practices.
First of all, this would be good information for any pope to have. The results would never be decisive, but they would at least help gauge likely reaction to moves under consideration, and perhaps help shape educational and public information efforts.
Second, and for my purposes even more appealing, having such data readily at hand would provide a surefire way to shut down talk about “the laity” or “the people,” and reframe the conversation as it should be – not what “everybody” wants, but what “I” want.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.