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Flawed Theos survey claims Catholic values are common in the UK

A new Theos survey about the Pope’s visit is doing the rounds today, and statistics are flying in all directions. The BHA are pointing out that a large majority of Britons are uninterested in (not hostile to) the Pope’s visit, which seems a fair conclusion. Theos says the public generally agreed with the poll’s 12 Catholic statements of values, and ask whether this means Britain is much more Catholic than we think. This, to put it politely, is dubious.

The value statements are almost all nothing to do with Catholicism. Some are ambiguous platitudes, but where it’s specific there’s nothing every major religion, plus countless moral philosophers, haven’t produced independently. And worst of all, anything that would make the list uniquely Catholic is conveniently omitted – there’s nothing about contraception, abortion, treatment of women, or treatment of gay people. The statements are instead mostly shared human values that fall out of thinking and caring about the world around you, and it’s massively dishonest to posit that widespread agreement means ‘the public rather likes the Pope’s social teaching’. It’s transparent cherry-picking, and Theos should know better.

The statements were taken from the Catholic Church’s Caritas in Veritate, an open letter from the Pope to the world. Here’s the full list of statements the poll asked people about:

Moral evaluation and scientific research must go hand in hand

Yes. Kinda. Depending on what you mean. But I think most scientists would broadly agree with this statement, and most scientists aren’t Catholic.

An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties

I think this is too vague for people to give an informed opinion. I don’t know what it means – what ‘duties’? I can come up with specific interpretations where I agree, but I suspect the Church’s version of duty is somewhat different from mine. The CiV has some worthy statements about rights and duties (para. 43), but it’s also lacking specifics.

It is irresponsible to view sexuality merely as a source of pleasure

Yes, I agree with the raw words in your sentence, but we all know what you’re getting at – stop being oblique and just say it. Para. 44 of the CiV goes into more detail, assuming its own ideas on birth control as inherently correct, and saying that ‘viewing sexuality merely as a source of pleasure’ means ‘individuals are ultimately subjected to various forms of violence’. So it all gets a bit weird.

Update: Cristina Odone thinks this is obviously a statement of Catholic doctrine, and the high agreement percentages mean people agree with the Catholic approach. I doubt that. The poll almost certainly didn’t identify the statement as a Catholic declaration – it would surely have defeated the point to have done so – and there’s no reason people would jump to thinking about contraception without the Catholic link.

The natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure

Yep. I think most people can agree with this, unless you’re an oil executive.

Investment always has moral, as well as economic significance

Yep. People have been saying this for as long as investment has been around, haven’t they?

The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly

This is a circular argument both here and in the CiV – ‘correctly’ seems to mean ‘ethically’ – but ditch the last five words and it stands. I refer you to the last 300 years of British economic history.

Technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption

Yes. Scientists have been saying this for decades. This is a bit odd, actually – it’s not like the Catholic Church figured this out first – they’ve looked at the scientific evidence over the past few decades and rightly concluded that something needs to be done. Which is good. But it’s as much a Catholic value as ‘don’t smoke’.

We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone

Badly phrased – prioritise, how? – but the Caritas in Veritate is clear that it means steady employment is a good thing. Do many economists disagree with that?

Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love

This is the only statement where the vast majority of people disagreed (agreement was in single figures). Probably because it’s creepy, and transparently controlling. I suggest any Catholics who genuinely (in their heart of hearts) think this is true go read something about economics. Unless you’re using some weird question-begging definition of ‘poverty’, which is entirely possible.

The consumer has a specific social responsibility

Vague, but again the obvious meaning is the one in the CiV. And, again, every religion and non-religious moral-philosopher regularly says the same thing. Not to mention lobby groups, humanitarian organisations, newspaper commentators, NGOs, pop stars etc..

One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation

In the CiV (para 53) this is intrinsically linked to poverty being a rejection of god’s love, and it all gets a bit tricksy, though there’s plenty to agree with. I tend to think isolation isn’t nice, but not being able to afford food or water is a lot worse. Plus, some people just like being alone. So I wouldn’t know how to respond to this in a poll.

Food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings

Who disagrees with this?

Agreeing with much of the above no more makes you Catholic than agreeing that cats are strange makes you catbinlady.

I’m sure these values do fall out of Catholic ideology, but the ideas that make said ideology unique are missing in action. Most humanists agree with much of the above, but you couldn’t suddenly claim most of the public agree with humanist ideas (you’d need a completely different kind of question to tease apart humanists. Which, incidentally, has been done. (though it’s a bit contentious)).

The statistic I’d be concerned about is the reaction to ‘I don’t approve of the Pope’s visit to Britain’: 24% of people agree. That’s a bit sad. I don’t like the Pope’s views on many things, but he gets to come here, and we get to protest. It’s actually a pretty good state of affairs, with the only major source of contention – in terms of the Pope’s visit in particular, rather than his views – being the state-sponsored nature of the trip.

Both sides have actually been very civil. The only problem, as ever, is the shouty elements making a nuisance of themselves. The debate on Wednesday had some problems with loud, annoying secularists shouting the Catholic speakers down. This wasn’t impressive. That said, I saw exactly the same from Catholics at Protest the Pope gigs earlier in the year, by which I don’t mean some vacuous ‘we’re as bad as each other’, just that I think both sides would agree the loud fringes don’t help anybody, and simply allow the media to paint a picture of us all as a bunch of loonies. Which is my biggest worry about the whole enterprise.

This Theos survery doesn’t help counter that narrative. If you’re going to argue the stats, you have to make an honest effort.

5 comments

  1. Well, this saves me a job. I was moments away from writing about 90% of this post on my own blog.

  2. Also, the full encyclical really is a massively dull, rambling stream of nonsense. It’s like the poetry of a 14-year-old on mySpace who fancies herself as a goth. I don’t know if it’s the Pope or his translators who are at fault (I think the former) but if you used the whole letter rather than out-of-context statements I doubt you’d find someone who’s willing to read this drivel, much less agree or disagree with it. Twenty eight thousand words, it is. The man’s meant to be a professional communicator. Can he not summarise?

  3. You’d almost be tempted to think it’s deliberately opaque so as to give the impression of depth. Not that the Catholic Church was postmodern before the word was invented or anything.

  4. Just added a link to Cristina Odone interpreting the sexuality/pleasure question as a direct query on Catholic doctrine (I don’t agree).

  5. hi there – is it just me !! can any one explain why when i type in the yahoo browser “wongablog.co.uk” i get a different site yet whe i type it in google its ok? could this be a bug in my system or is any one else having same probs ?
    alf saden

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