Grab a Tray

Even before opening Sense of the Faithful, Jerome P. Baggett’s timely sociological examination of how American Catholics from six parishes in the San Francisco Bay Area understand and practice their faith, the reader is offered a visual sense of a church in flux. In a cover photo of the interior of an Upper East Side church in Manhattan, photographer Jeff Spielman’s camera peers down a darkened Gothic nave toward an alabaster-hued sanctuary. Everything seems in movement, slightly ajar, as if the painter Claude Monet were depicting the inside of Rouen Cathedral.

Steeped in a sense of American Catholic history, the profound impact of the Second Vatican Council on the institutional life of the church, and current trends in the sociology of religion (the endnotes run to more than twenty-five pages), Sense of the Faithful argues that today nearly everyone is a cafeteria Catholic. This includes the East Bay parishioners Baggett interviews at a magnet church for Latin Mass traditionalists and those shut-the-door-on-the-past progressives he finds across the bay at a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation in San Francisco’s Castro District.

Of the three hundred people he and his assistants contacted at the six parishes over a five-year period (Baggett teaches at both the Jesuit School of Theology and the University of California at Berkeley), almost all view the church’s doctrine, moral teaching, and worship practices in light of their own needs, experiences, and understanding. One parishioner at the “conservative” parish disagrees with the pope’s condemnation of the Iraq war, but also with the church’s teaching on contraception. “I’ll be honest with you,” she tells Baggett, “I don’t think I’m wrong, but that doesn’t mean I’m not wrong.... Something could bring me around to another way of thinking, but I’m just not there right now.” Such parishioners, Baggett remarks, are “hybrids of sorts.” They are “quite active within and loyal to their institution but with the caveat that the faith they hold dear must resonate with their own experience and make sense to them on their own terms.” If indeed, as Baggett believes, the proverbial center of the faith still holds, American Catholicism is nonetheless more centrifugal, more fluid than its prewar, preconciliar, seemingly more monolithic precursor.

Baggett uses data from several recent in-depth national studies of Catholics—including Gallup and Pew polls and the work of Andrew Greeley, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, William V. D’Antonio, et al.—to capture this transformation. He then enhances these studies by mining the surveys and interviews his team conducted in California. Quoting at length from the latter, he makes an effective case that Catholics are just as firmly “Catholic” as their forebears, but in keeping with today’s changed realities. Aligning his research cohort with the broader national studies, he finds the two largely in sync. Then, adding color and texture with his interviews, he provides an engaging, multidimensional picture of Catholic life today.

Other sociologists will have to judge whether Baggett’s strategic geographic choice is representative. On the national cultural and political maps, San Francisco and the surrounding area are among the bluest sections of the blue. It is not called the Left Coast for nothing, as Baggett admits. Further, two of the six parishes represent extremes on the Catholic spectrum. Of the remaining four or “middling” parishes from his diocese of Oakland, two are urban and display some degree of racial and economic diversity, although tending to be poor. The other two are suburban, more affluent, and largely white. Of the roughly fifty interviews conducted in each parish, most respondents describe themselves as “active” parishioners. So this is neither Kansas nor a representative cross section of the American laity. Baggett’s strongly argued conclusion, however, is that the Catholics he interviewed represent a thoughtful, striving group whom church leaders would do well to engage and to heed. Thus the use of the venerable term sensus fidelium in his title.

Barrett’s sociological analysis and approach necessarily have more in common with Georg Simmel and Emil Durkheim than with St. Thomas—more in common with Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, and Robert Wuthnow than with St. Robert Bellarmine. As a consequence, he is able to offer a much-needed perspective on the American church’s institutional culture that neither denies nor devalues Catholicism’s ongoing theological controversies. A self-described “appreciative observer,” he applies the insights of Thomas O’Dea (The Sociology of Religion) to underscore the dilemmas all religious institutions face in navigating change. He also draws on Michele Dillon’s Catholic Identity, which considers the nature of religious authority in a culture that prizes personal autonomy—what she calls the “interpretive authority of the individual self.”

Still, theology, theologians, and historians play a significant role in these pages (from Jay P. Dolan, David O’Brien, and John McGreevy, to Peter Steinfels, Charles R. Morris, Scott Appleby, Mark Massa, Paul Lakeland, and James Fisher). Baggett brings to bear the declarations of Vatican II and the subsequent insights of theologians who hold that local parishes have an indispensable role in transmitting the traditio and in creating an enduring sense of religious community. He concludes that his subjects are resolutely Catholic: while the American church is “typically far less sure of its bearings,” it is nonetheless resilient, precisely because it is “less dogmatic, exclusive, and institutionally dependent” than it once was.

This is not to deny that the church faces significant challenges. If ex-Catholics were to be counted as a religious group, Baggett points out, they would form the second largest such body in the United States. Further, Baggett notes, the parishes he studied generally fail to reflect on and implement the church’s social teachings (what he and others call its “best-kept secret”), including those parishes with the most socially aware and activist members. Finally, Baggett found that parishioners across the board, in whatever parish they elect to attend, do not want to rock the boat. For most, church is a time and place reserved for worship and community. Even the most socially active tend to withhold their opinions about potentially divisive issues.

If there is a weakness in Baggett’s approach—aside from the acknowledged limitations of the scope and size of its regional subject pool—it is that it tends to generalize from the particular. While his anecdotes and stories are often germane and inspiring, they don’t always provide a convincing jump to his broader conclusions, nor are they necessarily applicable to groups in other circumstances. And the sense of the faithful analyzed in this study is decidedly lay. True, the homilies and liturgical presentations of several priests are observed and remarked on, but clerical voices and hierarchical concerns seem largely missing. Since the ordained are a constitutive element of what has been called “the Catholic thing,” this absence is significant. Either it is meant to foreshadow a “priestless” future, or it is an oversight. Either way, we find ourselves looking down a darkening nave toward that partially lit sanctuary, feeling at home yet longing for light.

Published in the 2009-03-27 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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