If you haven't done so already, head over to the National Catholic Reporter for a great in-depth look at Catholics in the United States today. The home page for the series is here.
The series looks at Catholic education, parish life, spirituality, commitment, identity, politics, the Eucharist, Millennials, and reactions to the sex abuse scandal.
The question of Catholic identity produced some interesting and, at times, discouraging statistics:
We get further insight into what Catholics see as core to Catholicism when we look at their opinions of what is entailed in being a “good Catholic.” In keeping with the strong trend established by past surveys, the vast majority of Catholics take a highly autonomous view of what it means to be a good Catholic. Large majorities say that a person can be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday (78 percent), without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control (78 percent), without their marriage being approved by the church (72 percent), and without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on divorce and remarriage (69 percent). Though still well over a majority, fewer Catholics agree that one can be a good Catholic without obeying church teaching on abortion (60 percent). These percentages are consistent with, though slightly higher than, the figures from the 2005 survey.
What are the obligations of “good Catholics” to the poor and to the parish? It is noteworthy that that there is a significant increase in the percentage of Catholics who say that one can be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor. In 2005, 44 percent of Catholics said that a person could be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor, but now in 2011, this figure has increased to a substantial 60 percent. This shift may be evidence of a loosening of Catholics’ felt obligations to the poor. But it may also reflect other factors. It may, for example, reflect the fact that Catholics, like many Americans, have experienced economic losses since the recession hit in 2008 and have responded to the recession, in part, by giving less priority to the poor as they themselves struggle to make ends meet and/or help relatives and neighbors negatively impacted by the economic downturn. The change may also be due to what researchers call a mode effect: The more impersonal, Internet mode of data gathering used in our 2011 survey compared to the personal telephone interview used in prior surveys, tends to decrease the impact of social desirability on interviewees’ responses and thus may account for respondents’ greater tendency to disavow an obligation to the poor.
We see a parallel decline in Catholics’ felt obligations to the parish. Whereas 58 percent of Catholics in our 2005 survey said that a person could be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the parish, 74 percent expressed this view in 2011. This increase may also be driven by the recession and/or survey mode effects, and abetted by lingering concerns among some Catholics that money donated to the parish may be used to help defray diocesan legal costs associated with the sex abuse crisis.
The stats on the political views of Catholics also show some stark differences, but more in terms of income and education than on political issues.
Education and income figures reveal sharp differences (Table 15). More than half the Democrats had a high school or less education, true of only one in three Republicans. At the other end, more than one in three Republicans (36 percent) have earned a bachelor’s degree or more, true of only one in five Democrats (22 percent). The income figures reflect these differences: Thirty-eight percent of Republicans reported incomes under $50,000; among Democrats it was two out of three (65 percent). At the other end of the income ladder, three in 10 Republicans reported incomes of $100,000 or more, a figure reported by 18 percent of the Democrats.
We turn now to the beliefs, practices and attitudes of Catholics who have identified themselves as Republicans or Democrats. No significant differences existed among the parties in responses to three of the four core beliefs that have consistently been ranked as very important to Catholics: Jesus’s life, death and resurrection; the sacraments; and Mary as the mother of God. On the fourth core item, helping the poor, although a majority of both parties said this was very important, Democrats (72 percent) were more likely than Republicans (61 percent) to say this.
Three beliefs drew minimum support as very important to Republicans and Democrats alike: the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican (33 percent and 28 percent respectively); the church’s teaching opposing the death penalty (22 percent and 33 percent); and a celibate male clergy (23 percent and 19 percent respectively).
Finally, the largest difference between the two parties was found regarding the church’s teaching opposing abortion: In this case 48 percent of Republican Catholics said it was very important to them as Catholics, a position taken by 35 percent of the Democrats.
The fact that a majority of Catholics believe that helping the poor is very important, but 60 percent also believe that doing so is not vital to actually being a good Catholic, demonstrates a discouraging dichotomy between being Catholic in theory and in practice. It also means we're human. We know the right thing to do, but we can't always bring ourselves to do it. Most Catholics agree that core elements of our faith are important, and this is encouraging, but we must also allow these core beliefs to affect the way we treat others. Otherwise, faith and religion easily can become things that are studied or theorized about rather than lived.