Perpetually Passed Over by Polling Print
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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