Catholicism 'not valued' - poll ahead of Pope visit

Pope Benedict XVI
Image caption Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive on 16 September for a four-day visit

Almost six in 10 Catholics say that their faith is not "generally valued" in British society, according to a poll commissioned by the BBC.

But 70% of British Catholics polled expect the Pope's visit to help the Catholic Church in the UK.

Nearly half thought he should drop his insistence on clerical celibacy.

And 52% of the 500 Catholics surveyed ahead of the Pope's visit on Thursday said the sex abuse scandal had shaken their faith in the Church's leadership.

Two-thirds also thought women should have more authority and status within the Church.

'Society harmed'

The poll, conducted by ComRes - a member of the British Polling Council - surveyed a random sample of 500 Roman Catholics across the UK between 6 and 9 September 2010.

Commenting on the results, Andrew Hawkins, ComRes chairman, said: "Overall there is a sense of strong support for the Pope's visit but disquiet both about some aspects of Papal teaching and the perception of the Catholic Church in wider society having been harmed."

In response to the question, "Do you feel your Catholic faith is generally valued by British society today, or not?" 57% answered that it was "not valued" compared with 30% who said it was, and 13% who said they did not know.

The poll results also suggest that a large number of Catholics think that the Pope should drop his insistence on clerical celibacy. Just under a half of those polled, 49%, said the celibacy rule should be relaxed, compared to 35%. A further 17% were uncommitted.

And 62% of those questioned say women should have more authority and status in the Catholic Church.

"Interestingly, the scores for men and women are exactly identical although older generations are least inclined to agree," Mr Hawkins said.

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the findings seemed to reveal some of the tensions between a Church anxious to preserve ancient traditions, and a secular society that finds them increasingly hard to understand.

Dr William Oddie, former editor of the Catholic Herald, said he was not surprised by the survey, but felt that celibacy should remain "the norm" amongst Catholic priests.

"I do think that our clergy have this particular quality because of their celibacy," he said.

"That doesn't mean to say that I don't know several married priests who are very effective, and so on. It isn't an impossibility - but I think it will be kept as the normal rule."

'Unlikely to change'

The head of Catholicism in England, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, believes the celibacy policy will remain.

He said: "My personal view is that I don't think it is likely to change.

"Clearly within our Catholic community in this country we have a small number of married priests - those who have been priests in the Church of England, and have then received ordination in the Catholic church.

"That is by way of exception."

Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive on 16 September for a four-day visit, which has already sparked controversy over its cost and relevance.

Image caption Archbishop Vincent Nichols believes the celibacy policy will remain.

On this first visit by a pope to the UK since John Paul II in 1982, the pontiff will go to Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham.

A series of sex abuse scandals have rocked the Catholic Church around the world in recent years, with the Church further accused of maintaining a culture of secrecy.

Pope Benedict's supporters say he has been the most proactive Pope yet in confronting abuse.

Earlier this year he apologised to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland, and later went on to promise "action" over child abuse by priests.

But some survivors say they still carry the psychological scars and that the Church should do more to fulfil its duty to them.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, told the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 that the scandal had "rocked the whole Catholic community."

"We all felt shamed and humiliated by what has been done by priests," he said.

"It's been an utter breach of trust."

But Archbishop Smith said Pope Benedict had strengthened the laws of the Catholic Church to help combat abuse by priests and made it clear that he wanted to tackle the problem.

"He thinks it's dreadful, an evil thing to do and he wants it rooted out of the Church," he said.

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