Signs of Life

A Sociologist Looks Ahead

By way of setting the assumptions: Don’t expect real reform in the Catholic Church until the Roman curia is brought under control of local bishops. Vatican II was the most successful reform council in Catholic history—until the world’s bishops left Rome and the curia took control again. Now we hear that the council didn’t change a thing but was merely an exercise in continuity.

Unfortunately, the leadership that should have guided the energies released by the council elected to suppress them, and the Spirit has been forced to rely on the lower clergy and the laity to restructure the church. None of us will live to see an authentic post–Vatican II church emerge.

In many parts of the world, Catholic seminaries are nearly empty, parochial schools are closing, churches are locked during the day, and rectories, convents, and novitiates are vacant. Ideologues, representing no one but themselves, fight over the ruins. Still, there are signs of the times on the horizon, no bigger than the size of a man’s hand, that suggest enormous vitality in Catholicism and give grounds for hope. Some of these signs are validated by data, others by strong impressions, and others by unobtrusive measures. Most will be dismissed as meaningless by partisans of both the Left and the Right.

There are a lot more Catholics in the United States than anyone has been able to count, perhaps 15 million more than current estimates. There are no reliable data about the size of the Mexican-American population of the United States, legal and illegal. Thirty million would be a low estimate, and most are Catholic. While the Catholic Church loses some to Evangelical churches (especially when they display statues of Guadalupe), at least 75 percent of these immigrants remain Catholic. They are, for the most part, devout family people for whom religion and family are connected in an intimate way. “We believe,” a Latina graduate student told me, “that God is part of our family, and that when we have a celebration in the family, God comes and rejoices with us.” Not only are Latinos a new source of energy in Catholicism; they bring a dimension of joy that is difficult for anglicized Celts like me to attain. They are not a new obligation for ministry but a sacrament of joy the church desperately needs.

The identity of American Catholics is rooted in the Catholic imaginative and narrative tradition. Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University has asked Catholic laity what they consider the essential components of their heritage. Responses to his “cafeteria” of possible identity items—and they remained invariant across age and locales—emphasized the Resurrection, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, God in the sacraments, concern for the poor, and Mary the mother of Jesus. These essentials have remained unchanged for about a thousand years. So the news couldn’t be much better, because these are the vessels of faith, the raw materials of theological reflection, the first fruits of the Catholic analogical imagination.

In the forty years since Humanae vitae, the birth-control encyclical, Catholics have learned to be Catholic on their own terms. When Humanae vitae appeared in 1968, some thought dissenting Catholics would either have to leave the church or stop practicing artificial birth control. Two generations later, it’s clear a majority of married Catholics maintain their love for the church while continuing to practice birth control. They do so by appealing to a God whom they believe understands married love. Despite constant denunciations from those in authority, and even suggestions from some that these so-called cafeteria Catholics should simply leave the church, such married Catholics stubbornly refuse to do so.

After forty years, the crisis does not seem likely to go away. There is not a country in the world (including Poland) where the majority of Catholics accept the church’s sexual ethic. As Margaret Daw, an Australian sociologist, has said, Catholics practice a “rationality of symbol.” They may not accept everything the pope teaches, but they still identify with him as representing the church and cheer him during papal visits. This is good news in the sense that the crisis has not torn the church apart. Neither side will change its position. The leadership is not prepared to excommunicate the dissenters, and the dissidents are not ready to decamp. How long can this crisis last? After forty years, is it still a crisis? In her Vatican II: A Sociological Analysis of Social Change (Princeton University Press), Melissa Wilde has suggested that it might take another council to salvage the wisdom of traditional Catholic sexual teaching—for which the writings of the past two popes on the spousal image of God might provide a frame.

Catholics have become more tolerant of homosexuals. In 1973, the first year of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, 76 percent of Protestants and 71percent of Catholics asserted that homosexual sex was always wrong. In 2007, the percentages had declined to 65 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Much of this change, like most change of attitudes, is not the result of individuals changing their minds but of cohort replacement-younger respondents replace those who have died. Thus, in the cohort born before 1910, 86 percent thought that homosexual sex was always wrong, while in the cohort born after 1980, the rate has fallen to 38 percent.

Volunteer movements, strong among Catholics, touch on the essence of Catholicism: serving the least of one’s brothers and sisters. In parishes with an intelligent, emotionally secure pastor, volunteers abound—ministers of welcome (ushers), ministers to the sick, lectors, cantors, Eucharistic ministers, youth ministers, CCD teachers, sports ministers, parish and financial council members, school-board members, and parish trustees—there are scores of parishioners eager to assume responsibility for needed activities. In my parish in Tucson, there are seventy-five organizations cheerfully keeping the ship afloat. We have a mission in Haiti where young people spend their summer vacations building houses, teaching kids, visiting the elderly, and trying to bridge ethnic divisions. But too many parishes are innocent of this frantic activity. The pastor does not want anyone messing with his administration of the parish. And too many bishops have weak benches—not enough men who are prepared to minister to the tidal waves of eager laity.

Popular devotions, some scorned by liturgists, remain strong. The Sorrowful Mother novena and Sunday-afternoon Benediction have not survived, but adoration chapels, festivals in honor of the Eucharist (especially Corpus Christi processions), and devotion to Mary have. The mother of Jesus has managed to escape the silly sentimentality of the old Mariology and the one-dimensional ideology of radical feminists. Small wonder. Any symbol that suggests God loves us like a mother cannot but appeal. Latinos are adding their popular devotions. Guadalupe will simply not go away. Neither will other popular devotions. The artificial conflict between liturgy and devotions is a construct the Catholic people will never accept. Devotions are not superstitious. They remystify the world through the insight that grace is everywhere.

Last Holy Saturday I wandered over to Barrio Libre in Tucson, to the chapel of St. Martin De Pores, to participate in the Pascua Yaqui Passion Play. That particular part of the play included Judas being blown up by a barge of firecrackers. At first, some of this Lent-long play may hardly appear Catholic. In fact, it is certainly Catholic, despite the mix of folk religion. We should welcome such phenomena and respect the serious intentions and artistic sensibility of those involved.

Easter and Christmas attendance has replaced Sunday Mass as an identifying norm of Catholic behavior. Half our regular parish attendees show up in church a couple of times a month. The other half are enthusiastically present at the two major feast days. They don’t believe that they will go to hell for all eternity for missing a Sunday Mass. If asked why they don’t go more often, the answer is obvious: They don’t get anything out of it. The sermons are terrible, the music is horrible, and it takes too long. Yet the Eucharist remains important in their lives.

Despite the church’s lack of interest in teenagers and young people, the enthusiasm of young Catholics in some of the new movements is a remarkable, if underappreciated, phenomenon. By “new movements” I do not mean Opus Dei or the Legionaries of Christ but groups that have grown up around some of the religious orders, such as the Jesuit Volunteers, the Vincentian Volunteers, the Claretian Volunteers, Amate House, and Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. When I was a much younger priest, I tried to nurture enthusiasm among the young, without much success. Their families did not want such enthusiasm to interfere with their children’s careers. I have been impressed by ACE and the discipline and skill I have seen in its members. At one alumni meeting last summer, I witnessed a great sense of enthusiasm. By combining intense educational and spiritual formation with a shared common life, ACE teams create an elan that is both exciting and demanding. When ACErs finish their two-year stint, 75 percent continue to teach, half of them in Catholic schools. I attended an hour-long seminar with ACE graduate students who were doing research on Catholic education. Similarly, in the Arizona desert last year we had two ACE teams working in impoverished communities (the only places ACE serves). Now there is a demand for more.

Friendship networks among Catholics are strong manifestations of Catholic community. In my current study of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I have discovered that 44 percent of Catholics say their five best friends are also Catholic, an almost tribal manifestation of community. There is evidence of this phenomenon in other dioceses. Being Catholic correlates positively with loyalty to the church, Mass attendance, refusal to leave, sympathy for the clergy and respect for leaders, agreement that Catholics should listen to papal teaching on the war, activity in the parish and other measures of affiliation, and financial contributions. Before developing this data, I wasn’t aware of such community networks, and I’m not sure many priests are aware of them even now. Yet these are enormously important resources. This is where all the volunteers come from.

Many fallen-away Catholics are merely waiting for invitations to return. My research in the Archdiocese of Chicago suggests there are some four hundred thousand “fallen away” Catholics. About half have left because of a mixed marriage. The other half have left because of the “other” issues—authority, sex, or a conflicted family background. Nearly half admit to occasional thoughts about returning, and 17 percent say that they think of it “sometimes” or “often.” Thus, there are roughly sixty-eight thousand “fallen-aways” in Cook and Lake Counties who might be open to invitations to return, and sixteen thousand who could be just waiting for an invitation. I know of no organized effort in Chicago to reclaim these lost sheep. In my parish in Tucson, the monsignor has been running a series for Alienated Catholics Anonymous for almost two decades. He presides over three series a year, and estimates that perhaps six hundred people have “come home to stay” since the program began. Some have become active parishioners—volunteers, in other words.

Barrio Libre, ACE, Alienated Catholics Anonymous, Guadalupe, the analogical imagination, cheers for the pope—these will never recreate the orderly, disciplined immigrant church into which I was ordained. But they suggest that something new and exciting is aborning. I look back on my eight decades with hope and, yes, delight.

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About the Author

Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press), Priests: A Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press), and The Truth about Conservative Christians (University of Chicago Press), with Michael Hout.