PEW-SMITH (UPDATED) Mar-18-2008 (600 words) With photo posted March 17. xxxn
Upcoming book links parishioners' politics with their priests' views
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A small study to be reported in an upcoming book on the political influence of parish priests found huge differences in the types of political messages being emphasized from one parish to another, which may come as no surprise to anyone.
But whichever subjects their priests address, said author Gregory Smith, a fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, people clearly are being influenced in their political thinking by what they hear from the pulpit and read in their parish bulletins.
Smith spoke March 14 to a group of editors of U.S. and Canadian Catholic publications and staff members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at USCCB headquarters in Washington.
For his upcoming book, "Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests," Smith conducted detailed case studies at nine parishes in adjacent dioceses in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, and analyzed data from the Notre Dame Study of Parish Life, which was conducted in the mid-1980s. The book, published by Georgetown University Press, is set for an April 15 release.
Smith said that although he studied only a small number of parishes in a relatively small geographic area the type of political messages being heard varied radically from one parish to another, even within the same diocese. He gathered data in 2004, concluding shortly after the general election in November.
For instance, parishioners were more likely to have strict standards "for what it takes to be a 'true Catholic'" if they were in parishes where the priests regularly emphasized life issues, such as abortion and stem-cell research but rarely brought up subjects such as poverty or the environment in a political context, Smith said.
The "true Catholic" criteria reflected an issue that came up nationwide during the 2004 elections over whether Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and other Catholic politicians should be allowed to receive Communion on the basis of their political support for laws keeping abortion legal.
Smith found that the priests he interviewed don't mince words that might not be well received, whether the subjects they're discussing are perceived to be liberal or conservative.
"Across the board they all said they were willing to speak up even when they know the subject matter is going to be unpopular," he said.
Smith said his extensive interviews with priests and parishioners were designed to filter out people who choose their parish on the basis of personal characteristics of the priests who staff them. By doing so, he explained, he believes he was better able to link people's political views to influences from their parish.
In comparing the data from the Notre Dame study to his own recent interviews, Smith told Catholic News Service he found the link between people's political beliefs and the perspectives they hear at church to be more indirect than what the Notre Dame study showed.
The Notre Dame study found a strong correlation between people's political attitudes and the views of their priests. No comprehensive analysis of how Catholics are or are not influenced by what they hear at their churches has been conducted since that mid-1980s study, he said.
Besides questioning priests and parishioners, Smith over the course of the year also studied parish bulletins, as a source of information about what issues are emphasized in parish life, whether through activities or explicit voter guidance materials.
"There was a very close match between the information conveyed in the bulletins and the responses from priests about what they said they emphasize," Smith said.
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