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Perpetually Passed Over by Polling Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 21 November 2013

The other day Austin Ruse remarked that the laity is being polled in advance of the upcoming extraordinary synod. I must have missed my copy.

I’m not surprised. I read polls every day about all sorts of things – how many favor Obamacare, how many still have faith in the president, and how many are worried about the healthcare website “glitches.” Such polls come out almost every day, telling us just exactly (down to the tenth-of-a-point) what Americans think. And yet, when pollsters want to know “what Americans think,” they never check with me. Why is that? I’m an American. But I’m perpetually passed over by pollsters.

Not only have I never been polled, I’ve never even seen a pollster!  Where do these people hang out? Outside prisons? At shopping malls? In the offices of The New York Times? Wherever those places are, I’m always somewhere else. But that’s okay.  

Polls are annoying, but acceptable when it comes to politics because, in the end, I get to vote, and personally, tabulating actual votes is the only sort of poll that matters to me. Otherwise, being perpetually passed over, I have no say. Besides, with polls, a lot depends not only on who you ask, but what you ask. How much do you still love the president?  How much do you still distrust the Republicans?  I find perpetual polling annoying, but in the end, I still get to vote.

Polling is another matter altogether, though, when it comes to the teachings of the Church. It’s not so much that I want a say in these matters – I mean, who the heck am I?  What worries me is this: As a person who teaches theology for a living, I get to hear a lot of comments that are – how to put this delicately – not entirely well-informed, shall we say, about Church teaching from people who call themselves “Catholic.”

“Why does the Church hate sex?” Hate sex? You’d think a Church with over a billion members wouldn’t be accused of hating sex. Quite the opposite. In fact, when I was growing up a good, white-bread Protestant boy, I heard the other accusation more often: Catholics just can’t control themselves, which is why they have all those children. Oversexed haters of sex: is that even logically possible?

People eager for this sort of polling on sexual matters might give some thought to how things might turn out if we polled Catholics on a host of other issues.

What would be the results, for example, if we polled “Catholic” businessmen on this principle from the soon-to-be Pope Saint John Paul the Great’s encyclical Centesimus Annus: “profitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people  -- who make up the firm's most valuable asset – to be humiliated and their dignity offended”?  Mark one:  

A) Agree.
B) Disagree.
C) Sounds nice, but ridiculously idealistic in reality.
D) Have no idea what you’re talking about.

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)

Or how about this principle from the same encyclical: “Of its nature private property also has a social function which is based on the law of the common purpose of goods.” That is to say, the “right” to private property has limits. Private property is meant to serve the common good. How many good American Catholics would agree that their right to private property is not absolute, but only a means not an end?

A) Many.
B) A few.
C) Only Jesuits and other members of religious orders whose every daily need is met.

How many Catholic employers have as a fundamental part of their business plan the following principle from Laborem Exercens that, according to John Paul II, “has always been taught by the Church,” namely, “the principle of the priority of labor over capital,” which insists that “labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause.”

A) Many
B) A few.
C) What are we, a bunch of commies?

And if we polled American teens, how many of them would check “Agree Completely” with this statement from Centesimus Annus: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.” Given the Church’s repeated condemnation of “consumerism,” are we to imagine most teens and twenty-somethings would mark: 

A) I always obey the Church’s teaching.
B) I sometimes obey the Church’s teaching.
C) I shop till I drop and what the Church says really has no bearing on that dimension of my life. In fact, how dare they presume to tell me what to do!

Finally, what would most American Catholics be forced to answer if asked whether their investment decisions were informed by this fundamental principle from Centesimus Annus: “the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice”? 

A) I think about this principle with every investment.
B) I seek to maximize profits with every investment because the Church has no business telling me about business.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the answers we got from such a survey were a bit, well, disappointing. What then?  Check one:

A) The Church should change her teaching on such matters, following the spirit and wisdom of the laity.
B) The Church should realize that it hasn’t been doing its job of evangelizing very well and that our shepherds need to take more seriously Jesus’s charge to “feed my sheep.”
C) The Church should realize that polling, no matter how well-intentioned, is usually done by people who have no idea what they’re doing.
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Rich in MN, November 21, 2013
You did not receive your extraordinary synod poll yet? Last week I was driving down Summit Avenue and I could have sworn that I saw President Sullivan carrying a big box labelled "Extraordinary Synod Polls" back to her office. Maybe she wants to help y'all in answering those thorny same-sex marriage questions by just completing them herself. After all, y'all might not have the clear hermeneutical vision for understanding Pope Francis' words, especially those professors who teach at the major seminary.

Okay, all facetiousness aside, you make a great point about "push polls." However, I think it is broader than just the polling itself. Hearing the results has a way of "pushing" people, too. As social creatures, we have an innate desire to be part of the herd. A biased poll, like biased reporting, creates waves that carry far beyond the poll itself.
written by Phil, November 21, 2013
As a faithful Catholic and survey methodologist, I find this post amusing. In reference to the last question, I imagine many progressive Catholics are hoping for A, many faithful Catholics are hoping for B (which is probably the reason they are doing it), and the author of this post thinks C. Of course, A, B, and C are not mutually exclusive, which makes this is poorly constructed survey question, but we won't fault the author since he is a theologian :)

Still, the Church's survey seems misguided. It consists of about 15 open-ended questions. I pity the poor souls who have to wade through the 1000s of semi-coherent open-ended responses in an attempt to distill them down into themes. Nobody asked me, but interviews and focus groups would be far better at collecting this type of data. And don't get me started on the sampling methodology! Posting the survey on diocesan websites? They will almost certainly get a small and unrepresentative sample.

So surveys are pretty worthless right? After all, the author claims the Church should realize that " usually done by people who have no idea what they're doing." How do you know this is “usually” the case? The answer "it's been my experience" is not good enough. One way to understand if surveys are usually done by people with 'no idea' would be to do a survey! We could do a large, nationally representative survey and ask people if they create surveys how much they know about administering surveys. Another option would be a content analysis of existing surveys.

The point is that generalizing one person's experience to everyone (the author's, the priest's, the layman’s, etc) is usually not good enough. Surveys can get us closer to understanding the way some things really are if they are done right. Of course, the author might complain if we don't survey him, but that critique is "not entirely well-informed". Learning about the central limit theorem, sampling theory, and the benefits of limitations of survey research would certainly add to many people's liberal education, including the author's.
written by Howard Kainz, November 21, 2013
Even though I am on the government "no call" list, I have received literally hundreds of calls from opinion pollsters, even after the elections. I always refuse to offer my opinion. If there are many like me, the results must be skewed to those who are eager to have their opinion registered. In other words, statistical controls are lacking.
written by Stanley Anderson, November 21, 2013
So in other words Randall, in your “Perpetually Passed Over by Polling” column, you are saying, wistfully, that while it was wonderful, with John Paul II, having a Pole as Pope, please, no people’s poll pulling policy into pale positions?

(Stanley is presently pondering possible places for protection from punishment)
written by Deacon James Stagg, November 21, 2013
Way to go, Stanley! Done in the true spirit of the article!

May I quote Mark Twain (I think): "There are lies, damned lies, and then statistics." The "statistics" obtained from polls are most suspect.....especially if you note the level of ordinary intelligence expressed in various "on the street" interviews.

"Catholics" are no exception, in my observation. "CINO's", like Pelosi and Biden, are found expressing their opinions everywhere, so it seems from the media.
written by Rebecca Teti, November 21, 2013
An hilarious column with a serious point, but I rise to praise the poll rather than bury it.

First of all, it's really not a poll. Have you seen the questions? There are about 30 asking things like, What has been your experience of the treatment of Humanae Vitae in the confessional? Answers to questions like that will make it evident whether the respondent is a practicing Catholic or not. And if he or she isn't, so much the better in a way -- presumably the Synod is aimed at reaching the "lightly churched."

I am a parish participant in the Archdiocese of Washington's local synod, and we did listening sessions in the parishes and on-line surveys in preparation. It proved very useful, as it showed where our people actually are rather than allowing each opinionated churchman --priest or lay-- to presume either to speak for the whole or to assume he knew what folks outside his own faction are thinking and why. The purpose of the intake isn't necessarily to give the people what they want, but to assess better what is on people's hearts and how to respond.

I would add that on the whole, based on the notes sounded loudest and most frequently in every parish across the diocese, people are sound. They might not articulate things well, but they want Jesus and they know it, and they know where they need help and where they are being given pablum when they need red meat. Without suggesting that there aren't real tensions and difficulties in some matters, the experience has given me a lot more confidence in –and richer experience of—that magisterium which is exercised by the people as a whole.

I say this not in rebuke, but simply to say that info-gathering has its use and helps the bishops respond to actual needs rather than perceived needs, or perhaps have better insight into where the knowledge gaps are.
written by Layman Tom, November 21, 2013
God bless us all! I am at different times, certain, nonplused; opinionated, indifferent; pleasant, crabby; motivated, lazy; focused, distracted. Yet there are two things of which I always cling to: faith that Jesus loves me and belief that all things go better with humor.

Thanks everyone! I needed a chuckle today.
written by Randall B. Smith, November 21, 2013
The Author Replies:

I thank Mrs. Teti for her comments. The close reader will realize in re-reading that I've not criticized the bishops anywhere in this article. (NB: "People eager for such polling ..." and "polling is usually done by people who don't know what they're doing.") There are people eager for such polling because they believe that they can use it to manipulate the bishops. Indeed, there are people putting out their own polls in order to do just that.

And in a similar vein, the Church should realize that polling is usually done by people (such as politicians and clueless businessmen) who don't know what they're doing. Perhaps the bishops do. One can always hope. Indeed, even if they don't, likely the Holy Spirit does.

As both Mrs. Teti and Phil suggest quite properly, the results of polls can sometimes be helpful. So, for example, it may well be (it has been suggested to me in another venue) that one local poll showed that most of the parishioners in a diocese wanted more reverent liturgy, more confession times, and homilies with better instruction about how to live the Christian life. The result was that no priest in the diocese could any longer labor under the assumption that that's not what everyone wants. Bravo. So no, I'm not arguing that all surveys are useless.

The trick, as I'm sure Phil would agree, is for the person proposing the poll to know what sort of information he or she wants, how he or she will go about interpreting the data, and what to do depending upon what one finds. Data, no matter how good, does not interpret itself. And data alone cannot determine a prudent course of action.

And yet, I'm also with Prof. Kainz on this small problem: I've looked at the poll (as Mrs. Teti suggests) and though I see that it is more of a "survey," still and all, it's so long and would require so much effort to make my way through it that I'm wondering whether I'll have the time. And even if I do, Prof. Kainz probably won't (and who could blame him, really). And think what a loss for the Church that would be!

So again, dear beloved bishops, whose good intentions I would not deign to question, please tread carefully, especially in making the information from such "surveys" public in places such as the National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times. However prudently YOU intend to interpret and use this data, others may have other ideas.
written by Thomas J. Hennigan, November 22, 2013
Did you know that Pope Pius IX sent a letter to all the bishops of the world before his definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception asking them if this formed part of the revealed teaching of the Church, that is, if it is the faith of the People of God (Sensus fidei o sensus fidelium)? The bishops replied overwhelming that it was and the Pope proceeded to make the dogmatic defintion. Was it a poll? In the same sense the questions sent to the Bishops Conferences in preparation for the Synod on the Family, is not a poll which is asking what people think of various doctrines of the Church so as to eventually change them. Rather it is an effort at diagnosing the difficulties in the way these teachings are presented and an effort at discerning how they might be better taught so that people will understand and accept them. No Pope or Synod or all Synods together are going to change any major teaching of the Church in relation to marriage and the family. They are hardly going to say: "Since St. Paul wrote the Fist letter to the Corintians, had to examine their consciences and make sure they were not in mortal sin in order to recieve the Eucharist. From now on we declar that this is no longe necesary in the case of those divorced and remarried". Like Pope John XXII, they want to discover the best way of presenting the perennial teaching of the Church on marriage and the family in the very negative culture in which we live these days; how to better prepare and catechise those who are going to recieve the Sacrament of Matrimony etc.

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