Sunday, September 13, 2015

Polling Data and ‘the Truth’

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 13, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 8: 27-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2015]

A couple of weeks ago The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights released the results of a poll that the organization recently sponsored.  Dr. Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League who also has his doctorate in sociology, had the study done because he knows that when Pope Francis visits the United States in a few short days the news media will do their best to put their own “spin” on the condition of the Church in our country.  That means, of course, that in all likelihood they will put almost their entire focus on those Catholics who disagree with Church teaching and want it to change.  And the implication will be that the vast majority of Catholic men and women—at least the vast majority of “intelligent and enlightened” Catholic men and women—have this attitude.

Well, Dr. Donohue wanted a more accurate picture of where Catholics are at in the United States right now, so he commissioned an accredited polling company to survey 1,000 Catholics nationwide.

Some of the results, as reported by Donohue on his website, are as follows:

  • ·         Roughly 68% say their commitment towards their faith has not been altered in any significant way in the recent past.  Those who are the most educated tended to feel the most excited about or committed to their Catholic faith; those who rarely attend Mass were the least excited.
  • ·         95% of Catholics say their faith plays a significant role in their everyday lives.  When it comes to the impact that their faith has on their political decisions, 69% reported that their Catholicism matters.  Nearly half of Catholics, 48%, believe that if more people practiced the teachings of the Catholic Church, our society would be better off.  Those who attend Mass more than once a week, 72%, are the most likely to agree with this proposition.
  • ·         When asked to identify themselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, 50% said they were pro-life and 38% said they were pro-choice.  But it appears that even among those who say they are pro-choice, few are zealots.  For example …only 5% said that abortion should be allowed for any reason and at any time.
  • ·         When it comes to marriage, 58% believe it should be between a man and a woman; 38% do not agree.  Those from the Northeast are the most liberal on this issue; frequent church-goers are the most conservative.

Toward the end of his analysis Dr. Donohue writes:

“[The] data indicate that 6-in-10 Catholics want the Church to stay true to its principles; only 35% want it to conform to modern culture.  Again, this suggests that many of those who might differ with the Church on women priests, or some other issue, also prefer a Church that doesn’t change with the winds of the dominant culture.”

An interesting survey.  There’s definitely some important information in it—especially for those who are charged with the religious education of our young people: parents, priests, CCD teachers, religious education directors, etc.  The poll clearly shows that there are certain issues on which all too many Catholics have received extremely poor instruction and formation.

That needs to change.

But it would be a mistake for us—a mistake for any one of us—to base our faith on the results of a poll (even a poll like this one by the Catholic League, which yielded some relatively positive results).

And that’s because polls are an expression of human opinion, and the opinions of human beings are sometimes wrong!  In fact in some cases the shared opinion of the vast majority of human beings on a particular issue is wrong!

Case in point: the issue of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

In today’s gospel story from Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples for some “polling data”—about himself.  Of course, he doesn’t frame the issue in quite that way (George Gallup and others like him weren’t around in first century Palestine).  But the question Jesus asks is definitely one that modern-day pollsters might ask about a popular but very mysterious person: Who is he?  Who, in your estimation, is this mysterious individual?  What is his true identity?

The disciples give Jesus three answers.

   1.   John the Baptist.  This is what people like Herod Antipas believed.  Scripture tells us that when he heard about some of the signs and wonders that Jesus was performing after John had died, Herod exclaimed, “John, whose head I had cut off, has been raised up!”
   2.    Elijah, the prophet.  Elijah, remember, did not leave this life in the usual manner: he was taken up to heaven on a flaming chariot!  And the Jews always believed he would return to earth when the Messiah was about to come.  As God said in the Book of the prophet, Malachi: “Now I am sending you Elijah the prophet, before the Day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the hearts of fathers to their sons and the hearts of sons to their fathers.”    
   3.   Another prophet.  Someone, in other words, like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the other great prophets of Israel’s past.

Three answers—which were probably the top three that would have surfaced if a modern-day scientific poll had been conducted in Palestine in 32 or 33A.D.

And they were all WRONG!  Jesus was not a resurrected John the Baptist; he was not Elijah back here on earth; and he was much, much more than a prophet like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (as important as those guys were!).

And please notice that even Peter, who DOES get it right when he correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (“the Christ”), only gets it half right!  That’s because he didn’t understand that the mission of the true Messiah—who was both God and man—was to reconcile the human race to the heavenly Father by his passion and death.  Peter, like most Jews of his day, expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would lead his people to victory in battle and restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness.  And so when Jesus began to speak to him and to the other disciples about his upcoming suffering and death, Peter lost it.  He freaked out!  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

He probably also had difficulty believing what he was hearing when Jesus called him “Satan”!  But at that moment, Peter was trying to dissuade Jesus from doing the Father’s will and fulfilling his messianic mission—which is exactly what Satan wanted Peter to do in that situation.

And that’s why Jesus gave him the name.

So if a poll had been taken in the first century concerning the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, only 1 person that we know of would have answered the key polling question correctly; and if a follow-up question had been asked about the kind of Messiah that Jesus was, even Peter would have gotten it wrong!

So much for the ability of polls to access the truth.

And yet how many people—how many Catholics—do shape their beliefs on various issues these days based on the results of the latest national survey?!  How many Catholics, for example, are now saying that so-called “gay marriage” is okay simply because recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans are now saying it’s okay?

If what the majority thinks on a particular subject automatically becomes “the truth”—then there is no truth (at least no objective truth).

Building your life on polling data is like building your house on shifting sand (which is not a good idea, as some of our friends in Misquamicut found out during Superstorm Sandy a few years ago).

We are to build our lives—our viewpoints—our beliefs on the rock-solid foundation of Jesus Christ and the Church he established.

Which is the Church that most of us (perhaps all of us) are BLESSED to belong to.