Vital Signs

 

Once upon a time, U.S. Catholics thought that when they referred to the church they meant the entire community, the people of God. Frank Harrison, bishop of Syracuse, New York, was hardly alone when he titled his 1965 pastoral letter We Are the Church. His people were surprised at first; they had used the phrase “the church” to refer to the ordained men who constituted its visible organization. But good pastors like Bishop Harrison, with the help of innumerable theologians and teachers, persuaded their fellow Catholics that they too were the church. Working with those holding office and those living consecrated lives, they were responsible for U.S. Catholicism. For a while this rather startling idea informed changes in Sunday worship, parish governance, and catechetics, and shaped responses to the period’s critical challenges of race, war, and abortion. Now as then, this idea suggests that, if one wants to say something about the church, it would be a good idea to ask the people. One might do that formally, through diocesan and parish pastoral councils, or one could do it systematically, making use of the tools of social science. For example, when the U.S. bishops were asked to participate in a 1971 synod in Rome convened to consider problems of the priesthood, they commissioned a series of academic studies; they deliberated with local and national representative bodies of priests; and some even consulted their people. Similarly, when the bishops considered how they could best participate in the 1976 celebration of the U.S. bicentennial, they summoned the entire church to consider how to respond to the challenge of “liberty and justice for all.” They held a representative national convention to consider the results and formulate advice for the hierarchy-the Call to Action conference. As Cardinal John Dearden said at the meeting, if the church is the people of God working together to make Christ present, then U.S. Catholics will have to develop new procedures for making their decisions. Common sense suggests that if this is the case, the religious experience and considered judgments of the faithful matter, and you can learn about these things by asking questions and listening to the answers. Andrew Greeley has made that simple argument for almost half a century. In American Catholics Today, four distinguished scholars present a portrait of the church in the United States drawn from their four national studies, along with data from other independent studies. Everyone (no exaggeration) who wants to talk seriously about U.S. Catholicism relies on data supplied by Greeley and these scholars. The research team found evidence for realities well known to pastors and teachers: U.S. Catholics are faithful. They affirm the Resurrection, the sacraments, devotion to Mary, and care of the poor as essential to Catholic identity. They go to Mass less often than they did in the 1950s and ’60s-about a third are at Mass on a given weekend-but their level of participation is likely a return to normal after the extraordinary levels of practice of the post-World War II generation. The most dedicated among them (those with high scores on questions about the personal importance of Catholicism) shape parish life. Just as they affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, they allow for the possibility that others may find salvation outside the church. The sexual-abuse crisis has accelerated loss of confidence in the bishops, but it has not affected participation in and financial support of local parishes. Like Catholics of more casual practice, core Catholics have reservations about church rules on marriage and the restriction of ordination to unmarried men. They emphasize conscience as the final arbiter of moral decisions, but consider themselves good Catholics. The data hold some surprises. Younger Catholics, as expected, are even more inclined than their elders to make their own judgments on moral issues, and their commitment is less intense. Yet they are almost as committed as earlier generations to central teachings of the Creed, the sacraments, Mary, and care of the poor. The authors take issue with the widely held idea that core Catholics who attend church regularly are more apt to be Republican and prolife. In fact, core Catholics are divided by party. They are also divided between those who support a prolife agenda that includes other social-justice concerns and those who are more strictly antiabortion. What’s more, the authors show that if income and education are considered there are no significant differences on key issues between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics. Perhaps most important is the question of dissent. Recent church politics has focused on the argument that the many Catholics who oppose some church teachings threaten the unity and orthodoxy of the church. This study suggests that the real issue is about what is fundamental to Catholic identity. The vast majority of Catholics believe that the Resurrection, sacraments, Mary, and care of the poor are essential-across all categories there is no dissent on these questions. The disagreement is about clerical celibacy, the role of women in the church, and the role of conscience in matters of human sexuality. But for the vast majority of Catholics, these are not central to Catholic identity. Rather, they are questions of conscience to be resolved by pastors and the laity together. If this is true, then the problem of dissent arises from the tendency of church leaders to place these items under the heading of essential doctrine. The book’s portrait of U.S. Catholics is based on impressive research and is presented with eminent fairness. For Catholics worried about their church, American Catholics Today poses some disturbing questions. For one, who cares? Many church leaders never accepted the idea that the experience and opinions of the laity matter. Few dioceses have ever had pastoral-research offices, and those that did have cut them back in recent years. Most bishops feel compelled to remind everyone that polls do not determine doctrine, as if anyone said they should. Many throw the blanket of doctrine over everything from birth control to clerical celibacy, then turn questions about these matters into threats to Catholic unity and integrity. Voice of the Faithful, composed of many core Catholics, asks whether it’s a good idea to leave all decisions to the hierarchy, and the organization is condemned as subverting of legitimate authority. Listening to institutional Catholic responses to studies like this, one is reminded of an old poster that shows a rag doll moving through the roller of an old-fashioned washing machine. The caption reads: “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Faced with the laity’s independence and self-confidence-the results of economic and educational progress-the instinct of too many churchmen is “let’s not go there.” What happened to the idea that the experience and opinions of the people of God matter? Perhaps the answer lies in a missing piece of this pastoral study: the future. Young and old alike worry about the transmission of the faith, but few ask what Catholics are supposed to do if they continue to keep the faith. Conservative Catholics have a clear idea of the church they hope to rebuild-united around the hierarchy, especially the Vatican, devoted to the Eucharist and the priests who alone make it available, living by the sexual morality taught by the hierarchical church, and standing in sharp opposition to the secularism of the ambient culture, which is responsible for all our problems. In this church-centered view of the world, the future of Catholicism is defined by the unity and vitality of the institutional church, its distance from secular culture, and evangelical efforts on its behalf. Bishop Harrison and his generation had a different vision. Their church would be more integrated into American society. Confronting the danger of nuclear war, the awakening of formerly colonial peoples, the spreading demands for human rights, and the dramatic interdependence spawned by modern technology, the church was called to serve the cause of survival, justice, and peace. The Americanization of immigrant Catholics seemed like good news because it was believed that the United States could make a difference at a critical moment in human history. In that vision, the history of U.S. Catholics was about liberation, freedom, and new responsibility as insiders in political, cultural, and corporate life. Clergy and religious had accompanied their people on that journey and could help them find genuine religious meaning in lay experience. Christian vocations could be found in marriage and family, work and citizenship. The U.S. Catholics described in American Catholics Today deserve a more robust, respectful, and responsible message about Catholic identity and mission than they have been getting in recent years. Polls don’t determine doctrine, but doctrine must come to life in people. It will. Whether that happens within a vital Catholic Church in the United States in the next generation depends more than we want to admit on what is done with information such as that provided in this book. American Catholic history isn’t over. The next step is up to us.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 
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David O'Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.

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