WASHINGTON — Most Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — want the next pope to allow priests to marry and women to join the priesthood, a major break from church rules and the judgment of Pope John Paul II, according to an Associated Press poll.
The charismatic pontiff was held in high regard by a majority of Americans and most Catholics, with many suggesting that John Paul will be remembered as one of the greatest popes. For many, the man who led the church for 26 years is the only pope they know.
But affection for John Paul has hardly eliminated the cultural divisions between the United States and the Vatican over the ordination of women, celibacy for priests and the role of lay people in the church.
“He was admired by people who disagreed so consistently on his views,” John C. Green, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said of the pontiff who died Saturday at 84.
More needed on sex abuse
The sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church has left many Catholics and other Americans convinced that the next pope must do more about predatory clergy. Eighty-six percent of Americans and 82 percent of the Catholics surveyed said greater steps were imperative.
Perhaps partly as an outgrowth of the abuse by priests, some also are calling for a larger church role for lay people, a notion that Rome has rejected. In the AP-Ipsos survey, 62 percent of Americans and 63 percent of American Catholics favor a greater say for lay people.
“The heart of the crisis has passed,” said Martin E. Marty, a religion historian and professor emeritus of American religious history at the University of Chicago. Marty suggested that the bishops and the church still need to win back the confidence of Americans, and “the bishops and the church have to grasp this soon enough.”
Changing views about the role of women and the predominance of married clergy in other faiths may help shape the opinions of Americans and American Catholics toward the Vatican’s rules on ordination and priest celibacy.
The American church
Catholics in the United States number 65 million — out of about 1 billion worldwide — and Jim Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said American culture has had a significant influence on church members here.
“Catholics have considerable differences with Rome,” Guth noted.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans and 60 percent of U.S. Catholics said the next pope should change church policies to allow priests to marry, while 25 percent of all Americans and 36 percent of Catholics said they preferred no change.
Most Americans, 64 percent, said women should be allowed to become priests, and 60 percent of the surveyed American Catholics agreed in the poll. Thirty-two percent of Americans in general disagreed, 38 percent of Catholics.
“Celibacy of priests is an issue that should be gone, priests should be able to marry,” said Joseph Riess, a self-employed businessman and Catholic from Vienna, Va. Riess said he had mixed emotions about women priests.
Change may be inevitable
Although such revolutionary changes seem unlikely soon for the tradition-bound church, some within the clergy say they may be inevitable, especially with the Vatican hard-pressed to enlist new priests.
“There are very few things that are absolutely unchangeable,” said the Rev. Lawrence J. Madden, a Jesuit priest and director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy in Washington.
Madden pointed out that more than 2,000 parishes out of nearly 20,000 do not have priests to offer Sunday Mass, a prospect that worries Catholics who consider receiving the sacrament of communion a critical element of their lives.
“The danger is we become a Eucharist-less church. I cannot see justifying that,” Madden said. “People have their head in the sand.”
In the survey, 37 percent of Americans and 41 percent of U.S. Catholics said the next pope should come from Europe while 36 percent of Americans and 43 percent of Catholics said the cardinals should choose a pontiff from Africa or Latin America, the fastest growing areas for Catholics.
The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults was taken Friday to Sunday and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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