Monday, 13 September 2010

The ITV survey that ignores a crucial distinction

It's "what do Catholics really think?" week, as ITV announces yet another opinion poll, to be discussed on the Tonight Programme at 7.30pm on Thursday, hours after Pope Benedict arrives in Scotland.

It is a YouGov poll of 1,636 Catholics, which is a considerably larger and more scientific sample than the 500 quizzed in the weekend's BBC survey.

Here are the main findings:
  • 71% said that contraception should be used to avoid sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies.
  • Nearly 80% disagreed with the church's view that homosexual acts are morally wrong with 4 out of 10 saying both gay and straight relationships should be celebrated.
  • Two thirds think priests should be allowed to marry.
You get the idea. It allows ITV to ask hard-hitting questions like, "Is the Pope really in charge of his flock?"; and "If Catholics don't listen to him, why should we?" and so on.

But like the BBC poll, the ITV survey fails to make a vital distinction between practising and non-practising Catholics.

If these were the results of a poll of weekly Massgoers, then the hard-hitting questions could legitimately be asked. But practising Catholics are less than a million -- that's less than a fifth of the total number of self-described Catholics. So the questions fall flat.

You would hardly expect lapsed Catholics to have views close to the Church's teaching. In fact, you would largely expect their views to be identical with those of their non-Catholic neighbours. So this survey really shows nothing at all significant. One could even argue that the 70-80 per cent in the survey who are at odds with church teaching coincide exactly with the lapsed proportion of the Catholic population. But we don't know that for sure.

So here's a suggestion to the splendid presenter of 'Tonight', Julie Etchingham (photo). Why not commission YouGov to do two separate polls, of both practising and non-practising Catholics, and ask these same questions? And put them side by side. Then we can have a very interesting discussion.