|Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics|
Issue Date: September 30, 2005
Attitudes of Catholics highly committed to the church
By DEAN R. HOGE
Leaders of churches, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are especially interested in hearing the views of laity who are strongly committed. These lay persons are the solid core of parish life. They provide leadership, volunteer labor and financial support, all of which are sorely needed and much appreciated.
In addition, some voices in the Catholic community who advocate a stricter Catholicism, one with a higher level of lay commitment but with a smaller membership overall, are curious about what the configuration of laity would be like under those circumstances. In that vision, lukewarm or indifferent Catholics would be less welcome, and high-commitment Catholics would predominate. What can research tell us about who they are?
Catholic leaders are interested in high-commitment Catholics and want to know details about them -- not just about a random sample of lay persons. Therefore we identified them in the 2005 survey. We needed to decide: commitment to what? Many Catholics today make distinctions -- commitment to Gospel teachings, spirituality, devotions, moral behavior, and/or commitment to the institutional church. In this study, we chose to identify Catholics highly committed to the church.
To explore this issue, we divided the sample of Catholic lay persons into three levels of church commitment -- high, medium and low. Three questions in the interview were combined to form the identifying criterion. First, How important is the Catholic church to you personally? Second, Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend Mass? The third asked the respondents to place themselves on a scale from one to seven, with one meaning that they would never leave the Catholic church, and seven that they might do so. To be considered a high-commitment Catholic, they had to say that the Catholic church is the most important part of their life or among the most important parts, that they attend Mass at least once a week, and that they would place themselves at one or two on the one-to-seven scale, indicating that they would not leave the Catholic church. Using this criterion, 21 percent of respondents scored high in 2005. Sixty-four percent scored medium and 15 percent scored low.
Many Catholics make no distinctions between faith and church, but as we saw in an earlier article, possibly as many as a majority do. We hear that especially young Catholics today distinguish between personal faith and adherence to the rules of the church, as is expressed in the catchall formula, Im spiritual but not religious.
This method of identifying high-commitment Catholics was used in all four of our surveys, beginning in 1987. The percent scoring high was 27 in 1987, 23 in 1993, 23 in 1999, and 21 in 2005. The overall level of church commitment has gradually sagged over 18 years. A key reason is that during this time, attendance weekly or oftener in our samples declined from 44 percent to 34 percent.
Who are they?
Catholics highly committed to the church are concentrated in certain demographic categories. The most important fact is that they are older. Of persons 64 or older, 42 percent scored as high-commitment; of persons 44 to 63, 19 percent; of persons 26 to 43, 18 percent; of persons 25 or younger, none. Nobody should conclude that in 20 or 40 years, no Catholics will be in the high-commitment category, since church involvement typically increases from the young adult years to the middle adult years. The most reasonable prediction is that in the future the overall level will continue to sag, as it has recently.
We also found three weaker patterns. High-commitment Catholics tended to be married or widowed more often than never married. High-commitment Catholics tended to have more Catholic education than others. And they tended (slightly) not to be living in the West. Other than these findings, we uncovered no patterns. For example, men and women were equally likely to have high commitment, as were members of different ethnic groups and persons of different educational levels.
Their beliefs and behaviors
Catholics highly committed to the church are clearly different on three topics but not different on three others. Let me review them one by one.
We turn to areas in which high-commitment Catholics are not distinctive:
Catholics with strong church commitment have stronger loyalty to church leaders, more obedience to church authority, and less criticism of the church leadership. They would be less tolerant of possible changes as a response to the priest shortage, such as reducing the Masses to less than once a week, not having a resident priest in the parish or having their parish closed.
Highly committed Catholics are no different from others in their attitudes about the rights of laity to participate in decision-making, at least regarding financial matters and probably in many other areas as well. They are no different in their acceptance of women in many roles (but not as deacons or priests).
To our research group, the most surprising finding was the rejection by high-commitment Catholics of some possibilities facing Catholics in the worsening shortage of priests. The most loyal Catholics will not be pleased by reduced availability of priests in the future. They are committed to the church as they know it.
National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005
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