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Archdiocese polls Catholics on views of church, leaders

Cardinal Sean P. O’MalleyAP Photo/Archdiocese of Boston/ George Martell/File

The Archdiocese of Boston has hired a top Democratic consultant to poll Catholics in Eastern Massachusetts — most of whom no longer attend weekly Mass — to find out what they think about the church and its leaders.

John Marttila, who served as a strategist for Joe Biden, John F. Kerry, and Deval Patrick, has overseen a phone survey this month on behalf of the church, asking active and inactive Catholics a wide-ranging series of 90 questions.

They include: How often do you go to Mass? Should women have a larger leadership role in the church? Is your opinion of Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley very favorable, favorable, unfavorable, or very unfavorable?


And: Have you seen the movie "Spotlight?" How well do you think the church has responded to the abuse crisis in recent years?

Church spokesman Terrence C. Donilon said the poll is part of a "research study on strategic direction" designed to help the church do a better job serving the estimated 1.8 million baptized Catholics in the archdiocese. Only about 16 percent attend Mass every week, down from 70 percent in 1970, according to church figures.

"We want to be good listeners, and we want to be good learners," Donilon said. "If you are not in conversation with the people, you're not listening."

In addition to the randomized phone survey of 1,600 Catholics, Marttila's firm will convene six 90-minute focus groups for in-depth conversations about participants' religious and spiritual lives.

The poll includes questions about church doctrine. Participants are asked at one point: Which best reflects your attitude about abortion? 1) It is morally wrong and should not be legal; 2) It is morally wrong but should be legal; or 3) It is morally acceptable and should be legal.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that many American Catholics disagree with the church's teaching; for example, the vast majority of Catholics ignore the church's prohibition on birth control, and have for years. The possibility of changing teaching on that issue barely came up in Rome last month when prelates gathered to discuss issues related to family life.


But specialists said the research could help the church understand how people are relating to its teachings, and how to communicate them better, even if it does not plan to change them.

Polling could also help the church learn how to make itself more accessible, they said.

Susan Fournier, who teaches marketing at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, said the Metropolitan Opera decided to simulcast operas in movie theaters outside New York after audience research showed that many fans still loved opera — but not the effort and cost of attending a live production.

She said the church's impulse to solicit the opinions of the faithful seems to align with Pope Francis's "more human" approach to the papacy.

"This is a big signal of the new Catholic brand that is much more approachable, much more transparent, much more willing to listen," she said. "I think it actually fits with everything that is going on: 'We care what you think, and we want to listen.' "

Donilon would not say how much the study costs or how it will be paid for, but he said the archdiocese would release that information in its annual financial report next year.

He said the study was developed over the course of the last year, and its timing had nothing to do with the release of "Spotlight," a film about The Boston Globe's 2002 investigation of the church's coverup of sexual abuse of children by clergy. He said church leaders nevertheless thought it made sense to include a question about the movie.


Donilon said the study was an outgrowth of statewide research conducted in 2012 for a ballot question on physician-assisted suicide. The church led a coalition of interests in defeating that measure through a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

The present study, he said, "is about having a better understanding of what is on the hearts and minds of the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Boston."

Marttila, in addition to political work, has conducted national opinion polls for a range of corporations and nonprofits. According to its website, some of the firm's recent research has explored American views on Israel for the Anti-Defamation League; attitudes toward medical imaging exams for the American College of Radiology; and opinion on the Affordable Care Act for the health care technology company IMS Health.

The church phone survey takes about 25 minutes to answer, a major time investment for respondents.

Donilon declined to release the questions, though he confirmed the queries posed to one respondent, Jennifer Haigh, a novelist who lives in Roslindale — and whose 2011 book, "Faith," concerns a Boston priest accused of sexual abuse.

Haigh said she was so surprised and curious when she got the call that she decided to stay on the line.


"I was all set to hang up — and I would have hung up if it had been about anything else — but it was just so weird, I wanted to know what they were going to ask," she said.

Fournier said the Catholic Church appears to be grappling with classic marketing problems: " 'We're not getting new users, our image is tarnished, we're not attracting youth,' " she said.

Boston University's Fournier said market research "is exactly what the business discipline would suggest: Go to the people, find out what they're thinking and use that to inform decisions."

Polling and other research tools are not new to the Catholic church. A half-century ago, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, spearheaded the founding of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to use social science research to better understand the church and its people.

The center conducts surveys for Catholic organizations and institutions, including some dioceses, helping the church understand the future of the priesthood, demographic trends, and Catholic school enrollment, among many other topics.

The Rev. Thomas Gaunt, the center's director, said its national polls have revealed that many inactive Catholics still pray and embrace theological doctrine such as the Trinity — but don't attend Mass regularly because they find it boring or don't feel welcome.

As a former pastor, Gaunt said, he found it helpful to know the exodus from churches might be something he could do something about.


As a pastor, he said, "I'm not creating the doctrine, but I am the one who creates a welcoming environment. I am the one who creates interesting sermons."

Jack Connors, a major donor to Catholic schools and a former advertising executive, said he was not involved in the study. But he said its aim is probably not to reengage people who haven't been to Mass in 30 years so much as to reach those who are less active, but open to getting involved again.

"It might help get some people to remember that the church, and really all faiths, have some very good service attributes, and maybe they can help us with . . . [services for] kids, elderly, the poor," Connors said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @wangsness.