A poll taken of Long Island Catholics and reported in Newsday has a finding that has become customary in media discussions.

While 88 percent of Catholic respondents regard religion as “very important” or “fairly important” in their lives, they aren’t that happy with Church doctrine.

Nearly 90 percent disagreed with the Church on birth control, stating that contraception should be allowed.

More than three-quarters of them think women should be allowed to be priests. Most of them (80+ percent) think annulments should be easier.

The numbers prompted the director of the Siena College Research Institute, who conducted the poll, to summarize the ordinary Catholic response:

New Yorkers are saying, ‘Come on, this is New York, we are in the 21st century. These are things the church should do.’

Perhaps he renders their thinking correctly. But we should hold off from assuming that the Catholic leadership should respond accordingly.

We shouldn’t regard each tension and discrepancy between what the laity and the clergy believe as an error to be corrected. If people walk into church and receive a 100 percent endorsement of what they already think and feel, then why bother going?

The presence of God in the Mass must entail some form of challenge, an experience that carries people beyond the world and above what they are encouraged to think all week long in the hustle of daily life.

It is no insult to the flock to say that secular conditions should be managed critically and sometimes resisted, even if people have absorbed them and want the church to adapt. The Newsday story opens by noting that Catholics “see outdated doctrine as the greatest obstacle facing the local church,” but the Church should always expect itself to be outdated. It should also expect parishioners to bring contemporary and contrary viewpoints with them when they enter the nave. It is the duty of the clergy to stand for something else.

When this tension between the modernizing temper of the laity and the principled conservatism of the clergy disappears—that is one sign of a church in need of reform.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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