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Rethinking the Catholic census


As a faithful citizen, I have already returned my U.S. Census form to the enumerators who will enter my data into their electronic mailboxes. My nose has been counted as well as our refrigerator, telephone and flush toilet.

The data will be stored in a secret place, available only to thousands of bureaucrats until 2072, by which time I will be 143 years old and conceivably won’t be offended that my neighbors know that I have a flush toilet.

The U.S. Census has been with us since 1790 when Article I, Section II became part of our Constitution. Its historical ancestry stretches to Jesus’ time, which explains how he came to be born in Bethlehem.

The census didn’t start to ask extra, invasive questions until the 19th century, although race was first asked in 1790. This year, those who got the long form are required to answer 53 questions, the shortest long-form question list since 1940.

I really don’t mind too much. After all, the local supermarket already knows what flavor of soup I slurp, and the Barnes & Noble Bookstore monitors virtually every word I read. Never mind what my doctors know about my inner workings. Our local Walgreen’s already has my prescriptions on zillions of its computers, and pregnant women report that they get diaper service ads before they return from the obstetrician’s office.

However, I do resent the long form’s query that asks if anyone in the house “has difficulty learning, remembering or concentrating.” Jean now wears a nametag so I know what to call her. I don’t want that even mentioned until 2072.

The experience reminds me of the pre-Vatican II days when the parish census was an integral part of church life. It was a time when rectories were stuffed with curates and smelled of the absence of women. Laywomen only ironed corporals, and laymen took up the collection or sold Fr. Coughlin’s anti-Semitic Social Justice magazine. For the rest, the curates did it all, including the parish census.

At St. Alice’s the arrival of the curate in our home was heralded well in advance. He could have arrived on a donkey and smelled of palms. The only other time the priest arrived was to anoint a poor soul who was en route to the next world.

It was a double of the first class occasion. My mother didn’t have a lot of faith in life, but she lived a life of faith and the curate was a symbol of that faith.

Chances are, the curate is in his grave now. He blessed the house and put fresh, indulgence-laden water in our Holy Water bottle. We had carefully purchased two beeswax candles, which he blessed and which we put away to be lit during hurricanes. (There must be billions of unburned beeswax candles in this world. We didn’t dare use them for anything else except sick calls and hurricanes.)

Then the curate would ask the usual questions about whether my parents were married in the church and if the three kids were baptized, had their first Communion and had been confirmed. He must have known all that. After all, I played Frankincense for three years on the Feast of the Epiphany and I could practically say the Suscipiat backwards. But he asked all the questions because the census was a serious exercise.

In other homes, he blessed the aged and infirm and the mentally and physically handicapped kids who never left the house. By the time he was finished, the house felt stronger than if it had been built by the third little pig.

Not every census visit went that well. “Mrs. Powell,” who lived three doors down, had married a Protestant. Gossip said that the curate had told her that she had to get rid of that man or she would never pass Go. It was hard on my mother because Mr. Powell was a hard-working man. Mrs. Powell never lacked for table money, no small thing in the middle of the Depression.

I’m not sure what parishes did with the census data. Today, such information is used largely for fundraising. Parishes now rely on local Chamber of Commerce data or talk in terms of “high income zip codes” rather than parish data.

Today, after decades of narrow theology and rigid law, Catholics have been turned into rebels. A pastor who guarded his parish boundaries like a Mob don would only provoke derision.

I wonder what a contemporary parish census would ask.

Would it ask if you are pro-life or pro-choice? Do you favor exclusive language or would your prefer to be excommunicated? Have you ever taken part in a group reconciliation? Do you realize that, according to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the latest version of the Psalter is “doctrinally flawed” and “therefore risks being a danger to the faith”? Have you ever chanted a flawed psalm? Do you still call the ambo the pulpit? Do you stand or kneel during the eucharistic prayer? Do you believe that the Mass for Shut-Ins fulfills your Sunday obligation, particularly if it’s on Saturday afternoon? If the pastor directs the congregation to gather in the narthex, do you know where the hell he’s talking about? Can you sing even one May procession hymn? Have you ever gone to confession by e-mail?

World War II taught us that there were other neighborhoods away from our own. Suburbs grew like shrubs, and every bishop carried a model of a proposed new suburban church in the trunk of his car. The automobile gave Catholics a choice. Some of my devout friends drive at least 30 minutes to a church that welcomes them.

Gradually, pastors stopped asking about boundaries and the requirement to be registered in the parish. In fact, it came as news to most of us that canon law had no such requirements.

This census year, citizens are asking if all this data is really necessary. Lately, Catholics are asking if the questions once asked of them have anything to do with Christ’s coming and death on the cross. They would ask the church: Why is the law so sacred? Why must not one jot or one tittle of the law be changed?

It seems to me that Catholics are moving away from a button-down theology and a body of laws that are tighter than the top olive in a bottle. It seems to me that they seek love, not the iron collar of prudence and expectation. Yet, the hierarchy still insists on neat piles of dogma, all tied to ecclesiastical consistency.

In my own parish, the pastor’s Easter essay cited Nathan Mitchell of the University of Notre Dame. “Jesus showed that the reign of God is not about shutting life out,” it said, “but about letting it in -- fully, abundantly, exuberantly.” I’m becoming convinced that our past obsession with rules and regulations has turned many of us into nonbelievers, something that can happen to anyone who tries to read 10 pages of the new Catechism at one sitting.

Surely, our obsession with sins of the flesh has rendered us sex-obsessed. Sadly, we have become a church that is weak on the strong and strong on the weak. The punitive laws-first system has helped us to create a core administration of too many bishops who have good heads and good hearts, but the two are not connected. We are thus left to deal with the clerical administrator who greets you in his office, which has a coffee table laden with the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and his doctoral dissertation.

The great French priest-novelist, Jean Sulivan, who died in 1980, wrote in Eternity, My Beloved: “A person is alive only to the extent that she achieves spiritual freedom, radiating the spirit of alleluia, no longer responding to external commands, having become one with God -- who never gives an order because He is love.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he stands behind the bishop during news conferences. Write him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000