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Long Island Catholics see religion as key part of life, poll says

Parishoners in Brentwood pray on Sept. 10, 2015,

Parishoners in Brentwood pray on Sept. 10, 2015, ahead of the Pope's visit to the United States. Credit: Johnny Milano

Long Island Catholics view religion as an integral part of their lives and they see outdated doctrine as the greatest obstacle facing the local church, according to a new poll conducted before Pope Francis' visit this month to the United States.

Nearly 90 percent of the Long Island Catholics in the Newsday/News 12/Siena College survey hold a favorable view of the pope, and more than half consider themselves both "religious and spiritual."

An overwhelming 88 percent of the Catholic respondents on Long Island said religion is "very important" or "fairly important" to them, compared to 77 percent of all residents.

That Islandwide figure was slightly lower than seven years ago, when Newsday polled local residents before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York City. Then, 83 percent said religion was very important or fairly important to their lives.

"The main thing is, even in today's society, people are still serious about their faith," said the Rev. Jordan Turano, O.P., chaplain at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, who also serves as a religious superior at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan.

Long Island has about 1.4 million Catholics -- about half of the population of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Biggest obstacle

More than 40 percent of Long Island Catholics indicated that "church doctrine being out of step with a majority of Catholics" is the single greatest obstacle facing the Catholic Church in the New York area today. The church's second-largest challenge, they said, is the declining number of the faithful.

Pollster Donald P. Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, pointed to respondents' views that some church doctrine -- such as allowing priests to marry -- should change.

"New Yorkers are saying, 'Come on, this is New York, we are in the 21st century. These are things the church should do.' And the implication is perhaps Francis is the leader who will point us in that direction," Levy said.

The research institute conducted the telephone poll of 505 Long Islanders from Aug. 30 through Tuesday. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Respondent Mary Kinsella, 80, a Catholic from East Northport, said the pontiff appears to be kind, loving and compassionate, but "he has a lot to take care of the way the church is at the moment."

Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, and is in New York from Sept. 24 to Sept. 26. While in the city, he will address the United Nations General Assembly, participate in a multireligious ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden, among other events. He departs Sept. 26 for a two-day visit to Philadelphia, where the World Meeting of Families is being held.

More than half of the Long Islanders polled identified themselves as Catholic. On a number of issues, such as allowing women to be priests and allowing Catholics to use birth control, respondents said they believe the church should change its positions. But they were skeptical as to whether church doctrine would be altered over the next generation.

Those results mirror a recent national Pew Research Center poll that found while U.S. Catholics express a deep connection to their religion, many say the church should change its stance on key issues.

Findings from the Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll's responses from Long Island present or former Catholics include:

Three quarters say priests should be allowed to marry, but more than half believe the church would not allow it. In Newsday's 2008 poll, nearly 70 percent of all residents said that should be allowed.

More than three quarters say women should be allowed to become priests, but nearly half think that the church will not make that change. In 2008, 71 percent of respondents said women should be able to become priests. A Newsday poll in 1995 found that 28 percent of local residents believed that only men should be priests.

Nearly 90 percent said the church should allow the use of birth control, but only 64 percent said they believe the church eventually will allow it.

Christopher Vogt, associate professor and chairman of theology and religious studies at St. John's University, noted that Francis' two predecessors stood firm on such issues.

"John Paul II made it extremely clear there was no room to move on those questions, and Benedict didn't emphasize it but he was not interested in that either," Vogt said. "With Francis, gender issues are an area he has not exercised clear leadership in. It is hard to say whether there would be movement on that."

Kinsella said she would like to see some of those areas addressed.

"The basic Catholic is sort of annoyed with the aristocracy of the hierarchy," the lifelong Catholic said. "The hierarchy -- they have to get with it with women's ordination and many other things that have to be worked out as far as lot of their laws that are not compatible with today's life."

The majority of polling took place before Pope Francis' announcement last week that the process of annulling marriages will be reformed, including speeding up and simplifying the procedure.

Easier annulments

More than 80 percent of Long Island Catholics said the church should make it easier to get annulments, and 70 percent expected it would do so.

"People notice that he is making changes and taking some bold steps, which makes people ask or wonder what else might be in the realm of possibilities for change?" Vogt said.

On the issue of marriage of same-sex couples, 62 percent of the poll's respondents said they doubted the church would recognize those marriages.

Gina Pampinella, 52, of Brightwaters, who was reared Catholic, married her female partner in Islip Town Hall in 2011. She said she hopes the Catholic Church one day will be more open.

"When we do go to church, we go to an Episcopal church because it is much more inclusive," she said.

Meanwhile, among all poll respondents, the role of religion in their lives is more mixed. Nearly half of respondents said they are both religious and spiritual. But 58 percent of younger respondents -- ages 18-34, of all faiths -- said they attend services only a few times a year or very seldom. Nearly 15 percent said they never do at all.

Among Long Island Catholics, 34 percent said they attend religious services once a week or more.

NYC responses

The Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll separately surveyed 496 New York City residents. Forty-two percent of all respondents said they are both religious and spiritual. Forty-four percent of those polled ages 18-34 said they attend services a few times a year or very seldom, and 12 percent said they never do.

Thirty-two percent of New York City Catholics said they go to religious services at least once a week.

Matthew Probert, 56, a lifelong Catholic from Farmingdale, said he attends church almost regularly at either St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale or Our Lady of Lourdes in Massapequa Park. He meditates often, he said, and goes on a Catholic retreat each year.

His religion comforts him, with the challenges he faces as caregiver for his 90-year-old mother, who has dementia. The advent of Francis as pope buoyed his spirits, and he is hopeful the pontiff can bring positive change for the church.

"I think he's doing a great job," Probert said. "You know, it sounds hackneyed, but he really is a breath of fresh air."

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