NCR Looks at "Catholics in America"

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.

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John Barbieri
7 years 2 months ago
This study appears to indicate that Catholics are defining for themselves what being Catholic is. This will not change. No threats by the bishops will accomplish anything.Their much coveted authority doesn't amount to very much when hardly anyone cares about it. The age of cafeteria catholicism is here wither the church wants it or not. 
Jim McCrea
7 years 2 months ago
And the cafeteria has doors on both the left AND the right.
Michael Barberi
7 years 2 months ago
These surveys reflect the Crisis of Truth in our Church today. A crisis that the heirarchy has not adequately addressed. When you add to this survey, the surveys of priests and theologians, we indeed we have a huge problem. 

It is easy for the Church to say, that these Catholics, priests and theologians, despite the numbers, are invincibly ignorant, dissenters and victims of the secular world. Their informed consciences are unfortunately distorted.

The Church refuses to take any blame for this crisis, nor do they believe further debate would resolve the crisis over certain issues. It is a problem in world view that the truth has already been proclaimed, taught, is universal and cannot be changed.

However, instead of standing firm on the principles of truth, we have priests looking the other way when they know that 97% of female married Catholics practice contraception, condemned by the Vatican as intrinsically evil, and stand in line each week to receive Holy Commuion. Unfortunately, this is not what the Guidelines for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion demands. This is just one of many examples where there is inconsistency and contradiction between certain doctrines, the truth and pastoral practices. This fuels the Crisis in Truth. Closing the debate behind the walls of the Vatican does not help us to resolve the crisis and bring about either solidarity or a significantly smaller Church.


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