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Who are the traditional Catholics?


In its Feb. 5 issue, NCR reported that the National Opinion Research Center’s 1998 General Social Survey had revealed that Catholics were evenly split among “traditional, moderate and liberal” with 14 percent rejecting all three offered labels. Twenty eight percent of American Catholics chose to describe themselves as “traditional,” a much higher proportion than many of us might have expected.

Who then are these “traditional” Catholics? What do they believe? For what do they stand?

The answer in brief is that they are devout, dedicated, loyal and generous Catholics. Most of them, however, would not be welcome in the offices of Crisis or First Things or The Wanderer or the Catholic League. They are Catholics on their own terms, as are most American Catholics.

I will now drop the quotes around the word traditional and begin to compare those who claim the term with all other American Catholics. Traditional Catholics are on the average older than other Catholics by eight years. The educational and income level of both groups is about the same. Both are equally likely to describe themselves as Democrats.

The traditional are marginally more likely to describe themselves as politically liberal. They are twice as likely to think that it is definitely the government’s job to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor and to provide jobs for everyone who wants a job. The traditional, finally, are 10 percentage points more likely to be women.

From here on, I will cite the comparison percentage for all other Catholics in parentheses.

Traditional Catholics are devout: Two thirds of them attend Mass at least several times a month (one-third). More than half of them think that it is important to attend services regularly (one-fifth). Three quarters pray daily (half). They are twice as likely to meditate every day (28 percent versus 14 percent).

They are faithful: Seventy-nine percent believe in life after death (73 percent). Seventy-five percent are certain there is a heaven (61 percent). Fifty-five percent are certain there is a hell (45 percent). Fifty-eight percent are certain that there are miracles (44 percent). (Ninety-six percent of both groups believe in God.)

Half of traditional Catholics think it is very important to follow church teachings in making moral decisions (one quarter). Half of both groups think it is also important to follow one’s own conscience.

They are more generous: Their financial contributions are two and a half times higher than that of other Catholics. Half of them have done some kind of volunteer work for the church in the last year (16 percent six or more times) as opposed to a quarter (3 percent six or more times) of other Catholics. They are also more likely to do volunteer work for other charities - 40 percent versus 35 percent (15 percent versus 5 percent six or more times).

They are more likely also to think of themselves as religious. They are three times as likely to think to describe themselves as spiritual persons (36 percent versus 12 percent). Sixty two percent think of themselves as “strong” Catholics (25 percent). They are more likely to report religious experiences (31 percent versus 21 percent). They are twice as likely to report they feel God’s love for them either directly or through others (66 percent to 31 percent).

They are loyal: Forty-four percent have confidence in religious leaders (26 percent). Forty percent describe themselves as “active” religiously (26 percent). Forty-six percent think of themselves as very religious (11 percent). Forty-six percent have often forgiven themselves for what they’ve done wrong (37 percent); 54 percent have forgiven others (42 percent) and 80 percent are confident that God has forgiven them (67 percent).

Who could ask for a group of better Catholics? In fact, the picture is not as bright as it seems. On the sexual issues that so divide the church, the traditional Catholics are more orthodox than other Catholics but still substantially less than orthodox. Thirty-one percent think that it is acceptable for a man and woman to live together without marriage (50 percent) and 26 percent think that cohabitation may be a useful preparation for marriage (45 percent). Thirty-five percent think that premarital sex is always wrong (14 percent). Fifty-nine percent think that homosexuality is always wrong (48 percent). Three out of five think that abortion should be possible when a woman’s health is in danger (seven out of eight).

If these three items are combined into a single index, 17 percent of the traditional Catholics are completely orthodox as opposed to 6 percent of other Catholics. It would appear therefore that the “traditionalists” are not traditionalists, although they are more devout, more dedicated, more loyal and more generous than other Catholics. Nonetheless, while they are almost three times more likely than other Catholics to agree with the church completely on abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex, five out of six are still Catholic on their own terms and disagree with one or more of these positions.

What conclusions might we draw from these findings? First of all, we should conclude that labels are tricky. The respondents in the survey meant something quite different by the word traditional than do the Society of Pius X or the Society of Pius V. They also mean something quite different than do Crisis, First Things, The Wanderer, and the Catholic League on the one hand, and NCR, America and Commonweal on the other. It is (lamentably perhaps) unlikely that very many of them have even heard of such journals.

Like most other American Catholics (as I have shown elsewhere) they are not polarized or caught up in “culture wars.” Those of us who are part of the Catholic elite (and I don’t intend that word pejoratively) and have a fairly clear idea of what ideological words mean, must force ourselves to remember how gray, messy, uncertain, problematic and seemingly inconsistent the human condition is.

You can’t call yourself a “traditionalist,” we say, and still tolerate abortion or homosexuality. But who says so? We may say so, but people don’t often listen to us. They may never have heard of us. They march to their own drummers, follow their own instincts, listen to their own consciences, make their own decisions, blow whither they will. They shouldn’t, we may say. But they do. And we can’t stop them.

Secondly, the leaders and the teachers in the church must face up to the fact that even the devoutly traditional and the traditionally devout (as they see themselves) are in open if relaxed dissent. They too are cafeteria Catholics, buffet Catholics, communal Catholics. The traditionals in the General Social Survey are the green wood.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is a sociologist and novelist. His most recent book is Irish Mist.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999