Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Center of Catholic identity


Like other centuries-old religious traditions, Catholicism encompasses an array of texts, teachings, rituals, devotions, prophets, reformers and saints. The history is so rich with inspiring texts and persons that Catholics today cannot know them all, much less embrace them all. All of us are forced to make selections, holding fast to what is spiritually nourishing and what feels authentic, and treating the rest as interesting but not crucial. Religious identity is always built on a core of beliefs. Theologians call this the hierarchy of truths.

Church leaders need to know the hierarchy of truths, not only that which is defined theologically, but also that which the laity know in their minds and hearts. Put differently, what do laity today feel is most central, authentic and important in being Catholic? Anyone responsible for leading the church needs to know where the main spiritual currents are.

Catholic identity, thus, has a center. It also has boundaries, and to keep identity strong those boundaries need to be maintained. For Catholics, not everything goes. People need to know what is Catholic and what is not, what is allowed and what is not. This article looks at survey findings that help us to assay the center and boundaries of Catholic identity today.

What is central?

Our 1999 and 2005 surveys sought to get a preliminary reading on what laity feel is central to being Catholic and what they feel is peripheral or optional. This information is important, because in times of social and cultural change not everything in a religious tradition can be maintained unaffected from the past. Whenever there is social change, devotees of Catholicism, as is the case of religious people in any tradition, encounter the necessity to make selections. We must decide what we must hold fast to as solid rock and what parts of the tradition may be open to reevaluation.

The 2005 survey asked, “As a Catholic, how important is each of the following to you? Would you say it is very important, somewhat important or not important at all?” We then asked about 12 elements of Catholicism. The percent saying “very important” to each is shown in Figure 1. Tied for first place are “Helping the poor” and “Belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.” In third place is “The sacraments, such as the Eucharist,” and closely following is “The Catholic church’s teachings about Mary as the Mother of God.”

By contrast, in last place among the 12, at the bottom, was “A celibate male clergy,” followed by “The Catholic church’s teachings that oppose the death penalty” and “The teaching authority claimed by the Vatican.”

These represent the attitudes of American Catholics, whether young or old, theologically trained or not. The findings here are similar to the findings of earlier studies except that in past studies the sacraments were usually in first place ahead of helping the poor (or charity toward the poor -- depending partly on the wording of the questions). Here helping the poor and belief in the Resurrection came out ahead. Nevertheless, we consider it noteworthy that helping the poor is held in such central importance by American Catholics. It is also noteworthy, by contrast, that most American Catholics consider the teachings on a celibate priesthood, the death penalty, abortion and same-sex marriage as more optional than essential. From this overall series we conclude that Catholics distinguish basic creedal beliefs such as Jesus’ resurrection and the nature of the sacraments from specific moral teachings about sexuality or the death penalty -- they see the latter as less than central to their Catholicity.

Another lesson from Figure 1 is that the elements that came out at the bottom are not widely seen as the kernel of faith and that they, therefore, are seen in instrumental terms. By “instrumental” we mean, how do they contribute to the creedal core? Whereas something at the top of Figure 1 is an untouchable core of faith, something else at the bottom is felt to be open to reevaluation according to whether or not it really is serving the core. Our set of 12 items in Figure 1 is suggestive, not definitive, but within the possibilities of survey research of this type, it provides a rough estimate of the centrality of the 12. More incisive studies would look at many more.

Some of the questions in Figure 1 were asked in the 1999 survey, and the results were the same. Feelings about centrality have not changed.

When we compared young and old Catholics in 2005, we found that the youngest generation rated three items much lower than did their elders -- the church’s teachings on abortion, the church’s teachings on same-sex marriage, and participating in devotions such as eucharistic adoration. Young adults especially were unlikely to rate these three as important to their Catholicity. Based on these findings, nobody should expect Catholic young adults to feel strong commitment to these facets of Catholicism in the years ahead. But young Catholics in 2005 were just as likely as others to rate helping the poor, belief in the Resurrection, and sacraments as essential to their faith.

We looked to see if Catholics with a history of Catholic schooling were different from those without any Catholic schooling. On the items in Figure 1 the two groups were not different. What about the effects of overall education level, regardless of any Catholic school or college? Differences were small, except that the less educated respondents gave somewhat higher importance ratings to Catholic teachings that oppose same-sex marriage and teachings about Mary as the Mother of God.

What are the themes in Catholicism that will contribute most strongly to Catholic identity in the future? The top of Figure 1 gives us hints. In this context let me also mention the findings of an experimental survey carried out at The Catholic University of America among young adult Catholics. The researchers asked the young adults what persons in all of church history, from the time of Jesus until now, were the most inspiring to them. The winners were St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. Here are more clues about the resources for a new vibrant Catholic identity.

Boundaries of Catholic identity

To this point we have looked at what is central to Catholic identity. Another aspect is boundaries. What do Catholics feel are the boundaries of what is necessary to be a good Catholic? Our 2005 survey approached this issue by saying, “The following statements deal with what you think it takes to be a good Catholic. Please tell me if you think a person can be a good Catholic without performing these actions or affirming these beliefs.” Table 1 shows the percent that said yes in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. At the top of the table are the most essential requirements for being a good Catholic in 2005, and at the bottom are the least essential ones. The table tells us that creedal beliefs are the main boundary markers of the faith: belief in Jesus’ resurrection and belief in the real presence in the Eucharist. Next comes the obligation to donate time or money to help the poor (note that it is deemed more important than donating time or money to help the parish).

At the bottom of the table are the least imperative requirements for being a good Catholic: attending church every Sunday and obeying church teachings on birth control. Third and fourth least important are having one’s marriage approved by the Catholic church and obeying church teachings on divorce and remarriage. In summary, creedal beliefs are a crucial requirement for being a Catholic, but weekly Mass attendance and obedience to church teachings about birth control are not. Faith and creedal belief are decisive.

Table 1 also gives us information about trends since 1987. Not all of the questions were asked in the earlier surveys, but we can see that Catholics today are slightly less concerned than they were in 1987 about obeying church teachings about abortion and about having their marriages approved by the church.

Do young people and older people in 2005 agree with each other on what one needs to do to be a good Catholic? Not on everything. In general the young see fewer requirements for being a good Catholic. The most extreme specific difference between young and old was on the question of obeying church teachings on abortion. The youngest generation saw this as much less important -- 89 percent said yes it was OK to disobey, compared with 45 percent in the oldest generation and 58 percent overall. Attitudes about obeying teachings about birth control were similar: eighty-seven percent of the young said that they were unimportant.

At a glance

Does Catholic education make a difference here? We checked and found that, on the whole, it does not. How about overall level of education, whether Catholic education or not; does it influence these attitudes? Yes, on two of the items in Table 1. The more highly educated Catholics were less insistent than the others about the requirement of obeying church teachings on birth control and on divorce and remarriage.

Two other questions in the 2005 survey tell us about how Catholics perceive boundaries. One states, “Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions do,” to which 56 percent agreed. This tells us that about half of American Catholics are uncertain about the greater truth of Catholicism as a defining boundary. Older persons tended to agree more -- 61 percent of Catholics 65 or over did so, compared with 43 percent of those 26 or younger.

The second statement says, “How a person lives is more important than whether he or she is a Catholic.” Eighty-eight percent agreed. This tells us that the vast majority of Catholics take more seriously a person’s behavior than his or her professed creed or church membership. In effect, a Catholic’s behavior is actually a more consequential boundary. On this statement, young and old agreed.

Catholic identity today

These survey findings contribute, we believe, to an understanding of American Catholic identity today, measured empirically. As researchers we can say nothing about how theologically accurate or defensible they are. All we can say is that we have tried to measure the current reality. Knowing the actual situation on the ground is useful, since it tells us what is empowering and nourishing about the lived faith.

This research also gives a hint about change. From the research we have seen, the center is not shifting. The main change is in the boundaries -- they are now fairly vague and porous, and they are slowly becoming more so over time. Boundaries that make no sense to young adults cannot be maintained over the long haul. More meaningful boundaries need to be defined and explained.

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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