The Perversities of Polling

I have never been a fan of polling. I once wrote an article titled “Perpetually Passed Over by Polling,” in which I expressed my frustration at hearing the results of polls in which I didn’t get a chance to vote.  I suppose I have little room for complaint; like many people, I don’t want to be bothered by people calling me up to be part of a poll. So I usually decline.

By contrast, when it’s time to vote, I go. The thing or person I vote for doesn’t always win, but at least I got to cast my vote.  For me polls amount to this: Some group I don’t know (and have little reason to trust) asked a few questions (rarely reported and often biased) to a few hundred people I don’t know, who probably don’t live anywhere near me (and quite frankly, if they’re answering poll questions on the phone, they’re nothing like me). But I’m supposed to take this as some kind of definitive statement on where “the American people are” on some issue.

Forgive me. I’m not buying it.  I am devoted to democracy.  But polling isn’t voting.

So, as perhaps you can imagine, I’m not all that impressed by the latest polling about abortion.  “The stances of many conservative Catholic bishops in the U.S. are not shared by a majority of lay Catholics,” trumpeted a recent article. “Most of them say abortion should be legal, favor greater inclusion of LGBT people, and oppose the denial of Communion for pro-choice politicians, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.”

“The poll, conducted in mid-May,” the article goes on to say, “shows a clear gap between the prevalent views of American Catholics, and some recent high-profile actions taken by the church’s leaders. For example, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called on Catholics nationwide to pray for the U.S. Supreme Court to end the constitutional right to abortion by reversing its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.” (Was there really ever such a constitutional “right”? Or just something a court said? “According to the new poll, 63 percent of Catholic adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 68 percent say Roe should be left as is.”

And then there was this.  “According to the poll, only 31 percent of lay Catholics agree that politicians supporting abortion rights should be denied Communion, while 66 percent say they should be allowed access to the sacrament.”

Okay, so first, no one asked me, which is, of course, a cardinal sin. But second, who qualifies as “Catholic” in this poll?  A friend of mine who grew up Catholic, but hasn’t been to Mass in 35 years, still marks “Catholic” on forms. He says, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”  (I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s not exactly true.)  So what is the status of these “Catholics” who are responding to the pollsters?

A new Knights of Columbus/Marist Poll says that 71 percent of Americans support legal limits on abortion and most Americans – 54 percent – oppose taxpayer funding of abortion.  In addition, the poll found that 81 percent of Americans believe laws can protect both the mother and her unborn child.  Now, see, those numbers are more to my liking.  But which numbers are true?

*

A recent Wall Street Journal article is titled “The Contradictions of Abortion Polling.” The sub-title declares: “More Americans say they’re ‘pro-choice,’ but views are more complicated if you read past the headline.”

“The conventional wisdom on abortion polling is that the Supreme Court is walking into a gale-force political wind if it overturns Roe v. Wade,” the article begins grimly. “Gallup reported last week that 55 percent of Americans identify as pro-choice, up six points since 2021 and near a record high. The Journal’s poll last week says 68 percent of people hope the Supreme Court doesn’t completely overturn Roe.” One hears such things on NPR pretty much every day.

And yet, as the article goes on to point out, these figures obscure as much as they reveal.  What do people mean when they mark themselves “pro-choice”?  In the Gallup survey, 67 percent of Americans say abortion should be “generally legal” in the first three months of pregnancy. But that figure falls precipitously to 36 percent in the second trimester and 20 percent in the final trimester.

According to Gallup, “A majority of Americans (55 percent) are generally against abortion in the second three months.” And, of course, it’s those late-term abortions after 15 weeks that the Dobbs v. Jackson case is about, and it is precisely those late-term abortions that the Democrat-sponsored federal abortion bill protected.

But let’s go back to the claim that, “The stances of many conservative Catholic bishops in the U.S. are not shared by a majority of lay Catholics,” because some poll supposedly shows “a clear gap between the prevalent views of American Catholics, and some recent high-profile actions taken by the church’s leaders.”

What if we polled American Catholics on how many agree with the bishops on immigration or whether businessmen should pay a “living wage” as opposed to what the market determined? Or whether the majority of Catholics oppose capital punishment and how many were in favor of limiting gun ownership?

And what if the results showed that the stances of many Catholic bishops on these issues were not “shared by most lay Catholics”?

Would the people trumpeting these current polls on abortion write articles insisting the Church change her teaching on these issues?  Or would they say instead, “This is terrible! We need to do a better job of teaching the lay Catholic faithful”?  If so, why the difference?  I mean, these people aren’t just using some rather dubious poll numbers to push a partisan agenda in the media, are they? – an agenda clearly at odds with the firm and infallible teaching of their Church.

Let’s take a poll and see what most Catholics think.

 

*Image: Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815 by John Lewis Krimmel [Kunst Museum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s A Little Clarity on Some Big Questions

Brad Miner’s In Praise of Dispassion

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.

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