Negative attitudes towards the Catholic Church and its leadership have increased in recent years due to hostility to official teaching and clerical sexual abuse, a new academic study has found.
An analysis of 180 opinion polls among British adults from the 1950s up until the present day showed that while latent and institutional anti-Catholicism has died away there was been a steady decline in esteem for Church and clergy.
The findings are revealed in an article by Dr Clive Field, who holds honorary academic posts at the Universities of Birmingham and Manchester, for the latest edition of the Journal of Religion in Europe. Dr Field’s research of the opinion polls found that particularly since 2000 hostility to the Church as an institution has increased.
He shows that Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code – which paints the Church in an unflattering light – has had a big impact in Britain, being the most widely read of 19 books of modern fiction according to a poll last year, with 41 per cent of those who had read the book believing its central claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had children by her, and the Church kept this a secret over 2000 years.
Separately, a YouGov poll in June 2013 found that almost 30 per cent thought the Church was a negative force in society with perceived discrimination against women and gays, clerical sexual abuse and “hypocrisy” cited as the main reasons for disapproval.
Findings also show that Catholics – and not just the general public - believe the Church is out of touch on moral and gender issues. This, Dr Field argues, suggests that hostility to the Church is not a new form of anti-Catholicism.
“For what Britons interviewed in opinion polls have been rejecting and challenging, de facto…is the Magisterium of the Church,” he writes. “Yet it would seem extreme to regard criticism of the Catholic Church in Britain, which is part of a wider religious trend (the diminishing authority of Church and clergy and Bible) and which is widely shared by Catholics, as motivated by anti-Catholicism as a discrete phenomenon.”
His findings show that Catholics are on the whole viewed positively and that while 24 per cent disagreed with marriages between Catholics and Protestants in 1968 this figure dropped to five per cent by 1993.
The article also shows that the two successful papal visits to Britain – John Paul II in 1982 and Benedict XVI in 2010 – have done little to change public opinion. A poll in 1993 found 74 per cent viewed Pope John Paul II positively but in 2006 just 29 per cent of British people held a positive opinion of Pope Benedict XVI.
On the eve of his visit to Britain, Benedict’s approval ratings dropped to 22 per cent but were boosted by 11 per cent after what was judged a successful trip. But the polls show that the visit did little to change people’s view of Catholicism.
Dr Field’s article also analyses the impact of Pope Francis that shows his impact on public opinion has been more restrained in Britain than other countries. While his impact on the Church is viewed as positive by 48 per cent of Britons this is almost 20 per cent fewer than in Canada and 15 per cent fewer than in America, according to an Arpo survey in March.
Thirty-six per cent of Britons thought Francis would do a good job when he was elected and this figure has remained the same over a year later.