Do American Catholics favor women’s ordination? Perhaps not as many as surveys suggest.

By Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Pope Francis has recently made headlines by appointing women to prominent positions in the Vatican and has called for a conversation on the possibility of women deacons in the Catholic Church. At the same time, he has made it clear that, in his view, women will never be ordained as Catholic priests.

American Catholics, however, seem to disagree with Pope Francis on this issue. A 2015 Pew survey showed that a solid majority of self-identified Catholics are in favor of women’s ordination in their parishes. A full 59% say that their church should allow women to become priests. Support is stronger among younger and more educated Catholics, as well as those who attend mass less than weekly. Levels of support are roughly identical between Catholic men (60%) and women (58%).

cover_r3_shepreachedtheword_knollbolin-smallIn our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (OUP), we present evidence which suggests that support for women’s ordination among American Catholics is perhaps not as high as these survey results indicate. Indeed, it may be much lower.

In a previous post, we describe how survey results on socially sensitive topics (especially those involving race or gender) may not always be accurate because many people shy away from expressing their candid opinions on these topics, especially if they fear being judged by the person conducting the interview on the telephone. Few people want to appear sexist, after all.

Taking advantage of nationwide telephone survey conducted in 2015 and 2016 among those who say they attend religious services at least “seldom,” we used a “list experiment” approach in our book to determine whether there was any evidence that American worshipers, including Catholics, were over-stating their support for female priests in their congregations.

It works by giving survey respondents a list of statements and instead of asking them to specify which ones they agree with, to instead only report how many. Respondents are randomly sorted into two groups and both receive the same list. The second group, however, is given an additional item. Theoretically, the difference in the average number of items agreed to between the two groups is the proportion of the sample population who agrees with the item given only to the second group.

In our case, we asked survey respondents the following question: “Now I’m going to read you a list of statements. Please tell us how many of the following things you would support in the church or religious congregation that you attend most often. We do not need to know which ones, just how many.”

The first group received the following list, the order of which was randomized for each respondent:

  • Encouraging religious leaders to openly discuss political matters over the pulpit during campaign season
  • Offering marriage ceremonies to gay and lesbian couples
  • Discouraging members of other faiths to visit and participate in religious services
  • Focusing more on interfaith and outreach programs in your community

The second group received an identical prompt and list of statements, with the exception of this additional list item:

  • Permitting women to serve as the pastor, priest, or principal leader of the congregation

Among Catholic respondents, the average number of statements agreed to among the first group was 2.21. In the second group, the average was 2.36. This difference of 0.15 suggests that only about 15% of American Catholics who attend mass at least occasionally indicate that they are supportive of women’s ordination in their parishes when given the opportunity to express that support indirectly. In contrast, a full 71% of Catholics expressed support in our survey when asked directly. This suggests that about half of American Catholics might be saying “yes” when asked about women’s ordination on telephone surveys when they really mean “no.”

Further analysis reveals a striking finding: this “hidden opposition” to female clergy is found only among Catholic women. While 70% of Catholic women expressed support for female priests in their parishes when asked directly, our list experiment could find no statistically significant difference between responses among the two list experiment groups. This means that we cannot be sure from these results that there were any female Catholics in our survey who indicated support for women’s ordination in the list experiment.

For their part, levels of support for women’s ordination among Catholic men were nearly identical at 71% whether asked directly or indirectly through the list experiment. We found no evidence to support the argument that Catholic men are misrepresenting their degree of support for ordaining women as priests.

In sum, our research suggests that Catholic men are generally (and sincerely) supportive of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, while Catholic women are much less enthusiastic than they appear based on telephone survey results.

It is very important to note, though, that these findings are merely suggestive as we are dealing with small sample sizes for religious and gender subgroups (83 Catholic women and 52 Catholic men). This increases margins of error and makes it more difficult to establish statistical significance. Also, list experiments have been critiqued on methodological grounds and the jury is still out as to how reliable the approach is. Thus, we should interpret these results with a great deal of caution.

That all said, our results also offer cause for skepticism before concluding that support for women’s ordination among American Catholics is as widespread as surveys might suggest, especially among Catholic women.

Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, @benjaminknoll28. Cammie Jo Bolin is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., @cjobolin. Their book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, is now available from Oxford University Press.


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