WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Most American Catholics take a positive view on where the Catholic Church is heading under Pope Benedict XVI, but many say their moral decisions will be guided by their own consciences and not by papal teachings.
Those are among the results of two national polls conducted after the April 19 election of the new pope but before his April 24 inaugural Mass. Catholic respondents in both polls were self-identified.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,007 adults, including 284 Catholics, 81 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of all Americans said they approved of the selection of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope.
Asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the Church, 81 percent of Catholics and 56 percent of Americans said it was favorable.
Although that was a drop from the 87 percentage approval rating among Catholics in February 2004, it was higher than the 69 percent approval rating given by Catholics in June and December of 2002 during the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
A separate survey of 616 U.S. Catholics by The Gallup Organization after the April 19 election of Pope Benedict XVI showed that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) said they would rely on their own consciences "on difficult moral questions," while only 20 percent said they would follow the teachings of Pope Benedict. Another 4 percent said they would follow both their consciences and papal teachings in making moral choices.
Gallup also asked respondents whether they would describe themselves as practicing Catholics or nonpracticing Catholics. More than nine out of 10 nonpracticing Catholics (94 percent) said they would follow their consciences over papal teachings, while only 62 percent of practicing Catholics said that.
In all, 397 of the 616 Gallup respondents identified themselves as practicing Catholics, while 216 said they were nonpracticing Catholics.
Almost half (49 percent) of the respondents who said they were practicing Catholics and 68 percent of the nonpracticing Catholics said they were bothered by the new pope's adherence to Church teaching that prohibits Catholics from using birth control.
The survey also showed that although 31 percent of Catholics had a favorable view of the pope and 9 percent had an unfavorable opinion, the majority -- 59 percent -- said they did not know enough about him to say what their view was.
Asked about certain aspects of Pope Benedict's background, most American Catholics said they were not bothered by the fact that the new pope has upheld Church teaching against married priests, that he is 78 years old, or that he was drafted into and served in the German army during World War II.
But 56 percent said they were bothered by the fact that the former German cardinal upholds the Church's prohibition on birth control.
A majority of both practicing and nonpracticing Catholics said they had a great deal or a moderate amount of confidence in the new pope's ability to handle the sex abuse issue, but the practicing Catholics, at 73 percent, were much more confident than nonpracticing Catholics, at 50 percent.
In the Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Catholics said they were very or somewhat enthusiastic about the selection of the former Cardinal Ratzinger as pope, while 24 percent said they were not too or not at all enthusiastic.
Asked if they thought the new pope "should maintain the traditional policies of the Church" or "change Church policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today," 50 percent of the Catholic respondents said the policies should be maintained and 48 percent said they should be changed.
When the same question was asked five weeks earlier about "the next pope," only 41 percent said traditional teachings should remain in place and 57 percent said they should change. The difference was even larger in October of 2003, when 33 percent said the teachings should remain the same and 64 percent said they should change under the next pope.
The margin of error for the Post-ABC survey was plus or minus 3 percentage points. For the Catholics-only questions, it was plus or minus 6 percentage points.
For the Gallup poll, the margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for the full group of Catholics, plus or minus 5 percentage points for the practicing Catholics in that group and plus or minus 7 percentage points for the nonpracticing Catholics.
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