Journal Article

Opinion Polls and the Dynamics of the Public Sphere: The Catholic Church in the Federal Republic after 1968

Benjamin Ziemann

in German History

Published on behalf of German History Society

Volume 24, issue 4, pages 562-586
Published in print October 2006 | ISSN: 0266-3554
Published online October 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-089X | DOI:
Opinion Polls and the Dynamics of the Public Sphere: The Catholic Church in the Federal Republic after 1968

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In the aftermath of the Katholikentag in Essen in September 1968, conflicts about various issues of religious practice and church activities became visible in the Catholic Church in the Federal Republic. These conflicts, and the growing demand for participation in the preparation of the Würzburg synod of the West German dioceses (1971-1975), provided the context for the first large-scale application of opinion polling in the Catholic Church. In the spring of 1970, twenty-one million questionnaires were distributed to all German Catholics, accompanied by a survey based on a quota sample of interviewees. The discourse about the implementation of polling techniques in the church was structured along the lines of binary dichotomies. Whereas some theologians and grass-roots activists demanded the inclusion of taboo topics such as the abolition of celibacy, many bishops and a conservative current feared that the questionnaire would allow for new vistas and hence deliberately liberalize and dilute essential elements of Catholic doctrine. Another controversial topic was the possibility of responsiveness, that is the extent to which decisions of church bodies should react to public opinion as it was reflected in the polls. Not only grass-roots activists, but also the renowned theologian Karl Lehmann were sceptical that the poll could be used to manipulate public opinion about pastoral issues and to gloss over substantial problems. But there was also substantial concern about the possible use of the polls in a plebiscitarian manner, which would charge facts about the state of public opinion with normative power. In the context of the preparations of the Würzburg Synod, the polls worked as a technology of the public sphere. In the aftermath of Essen 1968, the politicization of conflicts brought the question of responsiveness to the forefront. It would be misleading, however, as this example makes clear, to equate the reflection of public opinion in the polls with a ‘critical’ public capable of exercising democratic oversight.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: European History

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