Raymond Arroyo, who is over in Rome anchoring EWTN’s excellent conclave coverage, just reported on two new polls that are interesting in themselves, and even more interesting in juxtaposition to each other. In a new Quinnipiac poll, American Catholics say they support gay marriage, by a margin of 54 percent to 38 percent. This is up from December, when they supported it by a significantly narrower 49–43 percent margin. Catholics now support gay marriage by a significantly wider margin than the American people as a whole do; the general population favors it by only 47–43 percent. The second poll is from Knights of Columbus/Marist, and it found that 77 percent of all U.S. Catholics had either a positive or a very positive opinion of the Ratzinger papacy (the number for practicing Catholics was only slightly higher, at 82 percent). What this means is that a huge number of American Catholics are simultaneously Benedict XVI fans and supporters of gay marriage (and Obama voters, for that matter; remember that Catholics broke for Obama by 50–48 percent last November).
The bigger picture revealed by these numbers is that the secular media are being overly simplistic in their template for understanding the dynamics in American Catholicism, as being a struggle between a liberal laity and a conservative hierarchy. That Ratzinger — who used to be, and still is in some places, vilified with terms like “God’s Rottweiler” and “Panzerkardinal” — is so hugely popular even with U.S. Catholics who disagree with him on some hot-button issues shows that Americans’ Catholic identity is stronger than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. Sure, we all know some liberal Catholics who deplore Benedict XVI, wish for a Gorbachev-style reformer in the papal office, and won’t approve of the pope and the papacy until that happens. But the poll numbers suggest that these particular liberal voices don’t speak for the American Catholic majority, which simultaneously approves of the pope — even a pope as orthodox as Benedict XVI – and reserves the right to disagree with him on specific issues.
Back in the days of John Paul II, people used to dismiss a similar phenomenon as Americans’ admiring Wojtyla’s rock-star charisma while not taking his views on, say, contraception, that seriously. But the strong level of American support for Ratzinger can’t be dismissed so easily. The shy Ratzinger is not a rock star; if people like him, it’s for other, more serious reasons — reasons that have to do with a deeper American connection to Catholicism than is usually acknowledged.