U.S. Catholics want a younger, more liberal pope

Analysis by the CBS News Polling Unit: Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus.

As the College of Cardinals descends on Rome this week to select the world's next pope, most U.S. Catholics want the new pope to be younger, to have new ideas, and to liberalize the church's teachings on issues like birth control, ordaining women, and permitting priests to marry, according to a new poll by CBS News/New York Times.

When former Pope Benedict XVI ascended to the Papacy after his 78th birthday in 2005, he was known for defending traditional Catholic teachings and values. As he becomes the first pope to retire since the Middle Ages, most Catholics - 66 percent - say they would prefer the next Pope to be younger with new ideas, rather than older with more experience.

The poll, conducted among a random sample of 580 Catholic adults from Feb. 23-27, showed a groundswell of support among U.S. Catholics for a more modern church in general: A majority said the Catholic Church is out of touch with the needs of its members.

More specifically, over half of Catholics - 54 percent - would like the next pope to espouse more liberal teachings going forward. Only 19 percent hoped for a continuation of Benedict's teachings, and 18 percent cited a desire for someone with more conservative ideas.

Foremost among those subjects where most Catholics see room for change is on the question of contraception: 91 percent said the next Pope should favor the use of condoms to help stop HIV, and 71 percent said he should favor artificial methods of birth control. Sixty-nine percent of Catholics said, too, that priests should be able to get married, and the same number said women should be able to become priests.

A majority of Catholics (56 percent) think the pope should continue to support the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty and legalized abortion, however.

Regardless, Catholics don't think it is necessary to agree with the pope on issues like abortion and birth control in order to be a faithful member of the church. Eighty-three percent of Catholics said they think it's possible to disagree with the pope on issues like these and still be a good Catholic, and 78 percent of American Catholics are more likely to follow their own consciences rather than the pope's teachings (13 percent) on difficult moral issues.

One challenge for the next pope will be to convince Catholics that the church understands them. Just 39 percent of Catholics say the church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today. Far more - 53 percent -- say it is out of touch.

Fewer people now (29 percent) than in 2005 (38 percent) have a great deal of confidence that the next pope will be in touch with their needs. Even so, 74 percent of Catholics say they have at least some confidence that the College of Cardinals will select a Pope who fits this description.

Asked what they most want the next pope to accomplish, Catholics cited a desire to see him bring people back to the church (12 percent). Nine percent said they want him to modernize it, eight percent want him to unify it, and another eight percent want to see something done about the sex abuse scandals. Seven percent said they want the new pope to allow priests to marry, and the same number wants him to change the rules on birth control and homosexuality.

Nearly half of Catholics say it doesn't matter to them where in the world the next Pope comes from. Fourteen percent think the next pope should come from Latin America, 13 percent think he should come from Europe, four percent think he should come from Africa, and 17 percent say someplace else. Hispanic Catholics (23 percent) are much more likely than Catholics overall (14 percent) to want the next Pope to come from Latin America.

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