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A ‘solid majority’ of American Catholics supports conscience,lay role in decisions


John Paul’s recent Ad Tuendam Fidem, writing into canon law rules against dissent from noninfallible teaching, coupled with Cardinal Ratzinger’s explication of it, has renewed discussions about Vatican authority. Such directives often assume that the laity will respond in unity to a demand for obedience.

Vatican leaders may be forgetting that claims to authority will work only when the laity accept that authority in their hearts.

Recent research on the laity leads to these conclusions:

  • A solid majority of American Catholics -- even among self-identified conservatives -- say that if a papal directive conflicts with their conscience, they would follow their conscience.
  • Catholics believe the laity should be involved in making most church decisions. On only a few narrowly defined, contentious issues (abortion and women’s ordination, for example) does less than a majority in any category believe the laity should have a say.
  • Conservative, moderate and liberal Catholics are essentially alike in education, family income and a host of other variables. Aside from their views on church politics, in many ways they are mirror images of one another.

On the basis of these findings -- resulting from research conducted by the authors of this article and others -- we do not expect a split in the laity when Rome acts to tighten control, but we do not expect unquestioned obedience either. We expect lots of reflection over questions of authority, lay participation and the sensus fidelium.

Social science research can help to clarify what the consequences of papal letters are likely to be. Well-aimed research can look at different types of Catholics to estimate how they will respond to authoritative church statements. Recent surveys shed light on lay attitudes and help us predict how laity will respond to apostolic letters that challenge rights to freedom of conscience that many Catholics feel they have.

In 1996 and 1997 the Project on Small Christian Communities, funded by the Lilly Endowment, carried out surveys of members of two types of small faith communities and also of all persons in America who called themselves Catholics. These surveys permit us to compare attitudes and beliefs of three distinct categories of Catholics.

First is a representative sample of members of Catholic charismatic prayer groups. Second is a sample of members of parish groups commonly known as small Christian communities. Third is a national random sample of self-identified Catholics, polled by phone. We identify them here as “typical Catholics.”

We will also refer to a sub-sample of the sample of typical Catholics, composed of people who said they belonged to one or more church-related groups such as religious education groups, Christian initiation of adults groups, Knights of Columbus, ladies altar society, right-to-life and Bible study groups. We refer to them as “active parish” Catholics. They represent the solid members who are indispensable for creating vital parish life (40 percent of the total sample).

The surveys of charismatics and small Christian community members were done by mail in spring 1997. The national survey of Catholics was done by the University of Maryland Survey Research Center in autumn 1996.

Highly committed

The charismatic prayer movement in the Catholic church arose in the 1960s and reached its peak in the 1980s, when some reports claimed up to 10 million adherents. The estimated total number of active members today is about 130,000. Also the communities that form the core of the small Christian community movement in the United States arose soon after Vatican II. Now more than 24,000 communities are active, with an estimated national membership of about 460,000.

Although these two groups constitute less than 1 percent of the American Catholic population, they are two of the most highly committed segments of American Catholics and they are likely to reflect seriously on the pope’s apostolic letters. Their reactions count.

We assure readers that these samples were carefully drawn, with quality conforming to accepted polling standards. The samples of charismatics and other small community members are rather small, thus the numbers are approximate, with a margin of error of 8 points. In the nationwide sample the margin of error is 4 points.

In both surveys we asked the respondents if they saw themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal in their religious beliefs. This allows us to see how far apart the three groups were on questions of church obedience and participation. This kind of information is seldom gathered in polls.

Table 1 compares Catholic responses to a question that gives us information related to the probable receptivity to the recent apostolic letters. The respondents were asked to pick one of the following as best describing their position:

1. The pope is the authoritative voice speaking for Christ on earth. Roman Catholics must always obey the pope’s formal teachings even when their own consciences may not be able to accept the pope’s teaching.

2. The pope deserves respect, and his teachings should be studied carefully, but ultimately an individual should behave according to her or his conscience, even if it doesn’t agree with the pope’s teachings.

Table 1 shows the responses, each divided into persons seeing themselves as religiously conservative, moderate and liberal. The number of cases near the top of the table tells us what is already commonly known, that charismatic members are overwhelmingly conservative religiously; 74 out of the total of 99 charismatic members designated themselves as conservative. The small community members also had more conservatives than either moderates or liberals. The sample of typical Catholics at the right side of the table is balanced between conservatives and liberals.

In Table 1, we see the two statements plus the percentage of persons who were unsure. As we would expect, members of charismatic prayer groups were the most likely to select option 1, stressing obedience to the pope. Indeed, 73 percent of the conservatives and 65 percent of the moderates in such groups selected that option, compared with 40 percent of the conservative Catholics and 39 percent of the moderates who belonged to the small communities. The conservatives among the small community members are not much different from the conservatives in the total Catholic population (40 percent choosing option 1 versus 34 percent).

Probably the main lesson from Table 1 is that the majority of typical Catholics and of members of the small communities chose option 2. In the case of typical Catholics, it was a very strong majority (57 percent, 80 percent, and 85 percent, making a combined 71 percent).

Active Catholics

In further analysis, we divided the typical Catholics into two parts to identify the “active parish” Catholics, (the sub-sample that holds membership in typical parish groups described above). Are these “active parish” Catholics different from the total sample of typical Catholics? Yes, a little bit. For example, the percentages choosing obedience (option 1) were 38 percent (conservatives), 18 percent (moderates), and 9 percent (liberals), compared with the 30 percent, 11 percent and 6 percent for all other persons in the sample of typical Catholics. The percentages choosing conscience (option 2) were 51 percent (conservatives), 82 percent (moderates), and 85 percent (liberals), compared with 63 percent, 79 percent, and 84 percent for everybody else. Majority Catholic opinion believes in option 2.

Conservative Catholics in all three samples are the most likely to say that Catholics need to obey the pope rather than personal conscience. The spread between conservatives and liberals averages about 25 to 30 percentage points, enough for us to predict different reactions to church teachings. Still, it should not be overlooked that even among conservative charismatics, a small percentage -- 15 percent -- said they would follow their consciences.

Table 2 includes three items on church commitment and involvement. On the first, conservative Catholics in all categories say the church is the most important or one of the most important influences on their lives (with support ranging from a high of 92 percent to a low of 60 percent). Moderates and liberals were a bit lower in their support. On the second item, conservatives made clear that they would never leave the Catholic church.

There has been much recent discussion about Mass attendance, giving rise to a June apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II encouraging a return to Sunday as a day of worship and rest. The third item in Table 2 tells us that almost all the charismatics and small community Catholics are churchgoers at least weekly. Both are much more loyal than average Catholics. Indeed, a significant minority of these groups, even among liberals, attend daily Mass.

To summarize Table 2, conservative and moderate Catholics are clearly the core of the church’s regular Mass attendees and the most committed to the church; they see the church as one of the most important influences on their lives. But even liberal Catholics in the small communities are significantly more likely to attend Mass daily and weekly than typical Catholics.

Deciding church issues

We asked a series of questions dealing with the rights of laity to be involved in deciding certain church issues (see Table 3). The clear majority of typical Catholics believe that laity should have a voice in such decisions. When the typical Catholics are divided into conservatives, moderates, and liberals, not much difference occurs. That is, Catholics of all religious tendencies agree.

Laity active in charismatic groups or small communities are less in agreement that laity should have a voice. This is clearest on questions of divorce, abortion, selecting priests for parishes and who should be ordained as priests. On these topics, we see strong conservative versus liberal polarization.

Both conservatives and liberals overwhelmingly say that laity should have a voice in deciding how parish income is spent. Also, conservatives as well as liberals give strong support to lay involvement in teachings on economic justice, welfare and world peace.

Less than one in three conservatives in charismatic groups said that the laity should have a voice in teachings on divorce, abortion and the ordination of married men. Support was a bit stronger among conservatives in the small communities.

Among conservative charismatics, only 20 percent support the right of the laity to have a voice in the issue of women’s ordination. Among conservatives in small faith communities, the percentage jumps to 29 percent. Among typical Catholics, both conservatives and liberals believe that laity should have a voice in such a decision.

Thus in Table 3 we see that conservative Catholics share with other Catholics the belief that they have a right to participate in church decisions on many issues. Only on particular topics (divorce, abortion, ordination) would we expect polarization.

Table 4 provides a demographic overview of these Catholics. The first thing to note is the general absence of young people (18-32 years old) in either the charismatic groups or the other small faith communities. Charismatics are likely to be over 50 years of age, to have had some education beyond high school, to have had Catholic school education, to have family incomes under $50,000 a year and to be female.

Members of small faith communities are also likely to be over 50 years of age, with almost half being college graduates and with one in four having had a Catholic college education. They also had a slight majority with family incomes under $50,000 a year and were overwhelmingly female.

A slight majority of typical Catholics were under 50, with one in three being a college graduate, with one in four having had a Catholic grade and high school education. Sixty percent had family incomes under $50,000, and a small majority were female.

Table 4 tells us that nothing much sets conservative and liberal Catholics apart in terms of their backgrounds.

A long history

The debate over the primacy of obedience or conscience has a long history. Thomas Aquinas, at an early stage of his teaching ministry, argued that the 12th-century theologian Peter Lombard was wrong to claim that if church and conscience conflict, one should always obey the former. The young Aquinas wrote boldly in his Commentary on the Fourth Book of the Sentences of Peter Lombard: “Here the master [Lombard] is wrong; it is better to die excommunicated than to violate the conscience.”

A writer in The Tablet of London recently observed that the absolutist claims to authority put forth by recent popes are much more the results of particular historical events such as the French Revolution, the growth of liberal democratic governments and the loss of the Papal States, than a carryover from biblical or early church history.

Many people concerned with the state of American Catholicism have talked about the crisis of church authority. To create a vital faith community, it is not enough that the leaders issue statements they define as authoritative. It is also necessary that the laity accept that authority as true and binding on themselves.

Catholics who choose conscience over obedience are not simply reflecting a “cafeteria Catholicism” or some form of rebelliousness against leadership. Whether they choose obedience or conscience, they are reflecting their Catholic roots and upbringing.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998