Who are the ‘real’ Catholics? A survey of women prompts challenging questions

Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

One of the few qualifications for being a respondent to America’s recent survey of U.S. Catholic women was seemingly a simple one: answer “yes”to the question, “Are you Catholic?” Indeed, the folks who answered our survey all said yes. But the rest of their answers—on topics ranging from Mass attendance to political views to marital status to opinions on the possibility of female deacons—varied widely, demonstrating a range of opinions and beliefs as well as varying levels of understanding of or attention to Catholic teachings.

The America survey was a sociological study that we commissioned in order to find out, in concrete and quantitative terms, what Catholic women believe. It used a statistically significant sample size, was conducted in partnership with a world-renowned research group and was offered as a starting point for a new conversation about women in the life of the church.

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Shortly after the data were released, however, the conversation, at least on Facebook and Twitter, often headed in a very specific direction. Time and again, we heard in response to the stats: But these people aren’t “real” Catholics. The only answers that mattered, some argued, were the ones offered by people who attended Mass weekly or more. And, yes, the data set for the 24 percent of Catholic women who attend Mass weekly or more gives a very good overview of how this group of Catholic women thinks about and lives out their faith. This is extremely valuable for understanding how best to serve them and others.

The America survey was a sociological study, that we commissioned in order to find out, in concrete and quantitative terms, what Catholic women believe.

Equally valuable, however, are the thoughts and opinions of the other 76 percent of women who replied, women who identify as Catholic but find themselves less involved in parish life. It is notable that despite looser connections to the faith, these women still consider themselves Catholic. Something made them hold on to that identity offered through baptism, even if their grasp was tenuous. And that offers the hope that there is some part of them that may eventually say yes to becoming more involved.

If we believe in the power of baptism and in the grace it offers, there can be nothing but “real” Catholics among those who have been claimed for Christ through this sacrament. No matter how far from the church one runs, it is impossible to opt out of the “indelible spiritual sign” that baptism provides (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1274).

Of course, our baptism starts us on our spiritual journey, but it does not mean we will be perfect travelers. In the light of baptism, real Catholics include those who have missed Mass for good reasons and bad, who are angry with the church, who are in love with the church, who have grown tired of the church, who cannot imagine themselves anywhere else. Real Catholics sing in their church choir, mumble through the Creed, barely remember their confirmation name, can sing the Ave Maria in Latin by heart, realize they remember nothing of a homily they just heard. Real Catholics are, quite simply, trying their best and sometimes—often—failing. Real Catholics keep trying.

The catechism tells us that “The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop” (No. 1253). Yes, Catholics have a responsibility to grow in faith, but the Catholic community has a responsibility, too: “The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism” (No. 1255). To dismiss the experience of other Catholics as inauthentic is to shirk our own baptismal duty.

We may have worthwhile concerns and real frustrations with how others express our shared faith. But disagreement should not equal dismissal. We gain no followers for Christ by discounting others. We may gain some back by listening.

We gain no followers for Christ by discounting others. We may gain some back by listening.

The key question then is not, who are the “real” Catholics, but rather: What real action can we take knowing that some of our brothers and sisters feel disengaged or apathetic or hurt or alienated by the church? How do we bring people more fully into our community, no matter their current level of engagement?

I spoke with many committed Catholic women for my article on leadership, and one theme that arose in my interviews was the idea that the church is one’s home. Home, at its best, is a place we can always come back to and feel welcome. Perhaps that is, in part, why many people stay, why many women profess Catholic identity long after they have stopped going to Mass: You cannot change where you’re from. But maybe it is also why feeling rejected or disappointed by the church can hurt so much.

So what we must strive to do, as a community of faith, is to make people feel at home—not comfortable, not complacent, not self-assured but simply welcomed, with all of our mistakes and misgivings. It does not mean we cannot offer to each other corrections or advice, but it does mean that we cannot say: What you feel does not matter. Because emotions are real. Suffering is real.

What we must strive to do, as a community of faith, is to make people feel at home—not comfortable, not complacent, not self-assured but simply welcomed.

And the people of our church, in the midst of the beauty and solidarity we offer, have too often caused each other great suffering. As in any relationship, that suffering may prompt a moment when some are tempted to leave the church, to wonder, “Is it worth it?”—or, worse perhaps, to stop wondering at all, to let the whole relationship fade away, though it may remain in name.

But the “prophetic and royal mission” Christians share by virtue of our baptism requires us to try as hard as humanly possible, while relying on the grace of God, to point each other to the reason to offer a definitive yes (No. 1268). Because, a million times over, it is worth it. Because the community, the communion, the commitment that the church provides point us, however imperfectly at times, to the God who knows our true worth, to the one who always says yes when we ask to come home, who welcomes us back, who offers a love that is always and forever real.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Is baptism the criteria? Is baptism and answering the question in the affirmative the criteria?

Or do you have to believe something and act on that belief?

You hear the term practicing Catholic? Where does that fit in?

No one wants to reject anyone but what does the person have to do to be considered a Catholic? I have seen here and heard other places that people know atheists who act more Christian than those who claim to be Christian. Isn't a minimal behavioral characteristic required to be a "real" Catholic?

A related question is which bishops are real Catholics in China?

Tim O'Leary
2 months 1 week ago

J - Baptism (a pan-Christian rather than a Catholic-only sacrament) does indeed leave an indelible mark on a person's soul (hence the controversy re Edgardo Mortara in the very recent article in America). But, it doesn’t remove the natural law and the necessity of education, acceptance and living in the faith. Since the lapsi of the Diocletian persecution, millions of baptized people have not persevered in the faith, for a myriad of reasons. Today, many self-identifying nones, atheists or agnostics today are baptized and many self-identifying Catholics are practicing something else rather than the Catholic faith. So, self-identification has v. poor predictive power in social science.

Beyond its scientific weakness, it is also misleading. In the America article, it gave the impression that the poll was representing women who pray in Catholic Churches (given the accompanying photo of a woman praying in Church), when the details showed the majority (53%) rarely or never set foot in a Catholic Church. Secular media, the pro-abortion lobby (Guttmacher, etc.) and those interested in changing Church doctrine are very fond of self-identification for their political purposes. I expect more from CARA or any Catholic magazine that is trying to shed light on the real Church. Only when we have honest data, can we have effective evangelizing.

Elissa Roper
2 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you Kerry for returning the focus to a positive and potentially fruitful perspective. The Catholic Church should indeed be a home where people can fully be themselves, oriented to God, and blessed by communal life.

Absent Catholics are excluded when people align themselves with the eldest son in the story of the Prodigal Son - the "real" and "good" son who does as he should. The whole point is that we need to be merciful as the Father is merciful. It's not going to make a lot of Catholics comfortable but that's what being the Body of Christ is about.

Genevieve Burns
2 months 2 weeks ago

“Equally valuable, however, are the thoughts and opinions of the other 76 percent of women who replied, women who identify as Catholic but find themselves less involved in parish life. ”

FALSE! Why should they be of equal value? It’d be like comparing my knowledge of tennis with that of an ex-professional. Who would you want doing the broadcast of the US Open telecast? We wouldn’t be at all “equal”, despite the fact I like tennis too.

Lisa Weber
2 months 1 week ago

The thoughts and opinions of the other 76% are equally important because they are most able to tell the church where it could improve. You learn more from your critics than you do from your friends, as a general rule.

"Why should they be of equal value?" expresses contempt for the people you are terming "they", people unlike yourself who are of lesser worth. It says volumes about your unchristian attitude toward others.

Theodore Stanfield
2 months 1 week ago

@Genevieve Burns:
My Jesuit teachers would, at this point be reminding you, none too gently, that humility is one of the cardinal virtues and Pride cometh before the fall. Your comments could easily be misconstrued to indicate a kind of sanctimonious self-satisfaction not compatible with a life of Christian virtue.

Patty Bennett
2 months 2 weeks ago

Yes, emotions are real, and suffering is real, but we must always remember that TRUTH is also real. It is absolutely important to remember that Christ loves us so much He gave His life for us. How can anyone look at the crucifix, think of the depth of the love of God, and NOT feel welcome? We are called to be family, the household of God, and to love Him in return, and in that, we are ALL welcome.
So, it matters much less "finding out what Catholic women want" than following what JESUS wants.
"Leadership" is a favorite trendy buzz word these days. Any genuine leadership serves to facilitate following Christ more deeply, not to eliminate our discomfort and suffering. Any leader worth following is pointing the way to Jesus.

Lisa Weber
2 months 1 week ago

I have seen many people be made to feel unwelcome. I have been invited to leave the church more than once, simply because I do not want to see a return to the pre-Vatican II forms and practices. Church pews are often quite empty because people are often made to feel unwelcome.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Agreed. But this would mean we laity demand our hierarchy act according to the Gospel of Christ and treat all family members the same and offer them all the same sacraments. We treat women less in our church. We reject all women called to priestly ordination and then call them bad Catholics when they leave crushed from their unwelcoming home. We must change before we can point fingers at others because where we stand now, Catholicism is less Christian in its laws and behavior than many other beliefs who do not know our God.

Mike Van Vranken
2 months 2 weeks ago

Kerry, this is an excellent article and your points are right on target. It's interesting, Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus what he wanted Jesus to do for him (Mark 10:51). Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida if he wanted to be well (John 5:6). Jesus asked two of John's disciples what they were looking for (John 1:38). If we are going to be Christlike, it appears we are to ask people what they want; what they are looking for. That's exactly what this poll of Catholic women did. It asked Catholic women what they are looking for. At the same time, whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Christ. So, asking these Catholic women what they want is not only being Christlike, it also means that we are literally asking Jesus what he wants. So again, your article is perfect. Thank you for helping us see what Jesus wants us to do - which of course is always to love and treat others as we would love and treat him. Keep up the great work.

Lisa Weber
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you for an excellent article. I can understand how one can be Catholic but not currently going to church. I did not understand how Catholic I was until I started dating a Mormon. Neither of us had gone to church in years, but religion quickly became a flashpoint in our relationship. And I did not understand how Catholic my dad was until I had been back in church for a while. I was Catholic without being entirely conscious of it.

I find church to be a discouraging place at times, even though I attend Mass more frequently than on Sundays. I am involved in the parish and sometimes find it to be a place of sanity. At other times, it makes me want to run away. When I am particularly discouraged with it, I find it worthwhile to support Christianity because women in Christian societies will never have to worry about being stoned for adultery - Jesus prohibited it. Relief from a death penalty due to gossip is not to be taken for granted.

Thank you for researching the subject of Catholic women. I hope it stimulates a fruitful discussion.

Charles Erlinger
2 months 1 week ago

Here’s a thought.

There are very many reasons why some of the women ( mostly married, with husbands and multiple children) that I have known over a long life, would consider themselves to be Catholic despite experiencing periods during which it just seemed to be impossible to make it to mass every Sunday or to participate actively in parish ministries or even purely social activities. I personally think of them as saints, not second class or “unreal” Catholics.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

I agree that many women have left Catholicism for good reasons and we will continue to lose many women and men if we Catholics who go to church every week don't demand real change for women in our church. This survey was a bit of a joke something clearly America Magazine is having a hard time owning up to. CARA is not an unbiased survey taker and was clearly not unbiased when seeking research for this recent survey. The proof of that is in this article above, in that CARA asked only women what they thought about women being made deacons and did not, intentionally, ask them about how they felt about women being ordained priests or ordained equally to men or allowed to be made bishops, cardinals and popes. I myself think the permanent deaconate needs to be done away with altogether as it is a ministry that more stunts the growth of parishes than increases them. However, I was called to ordained priesthood in my teens, like many other women in our church, and suffered and still suffer extreme emotional and spiritual pain from this rejection.

So yes it should matter what women who have left Catholicism want as well as those who stayed, but CARA needs to make sure that when it asks these very different groups of Catholic Women, what they want that it does not by the type of question, limit what the answers on a subject might be. This is especially true of any social justice/human diginity issue such as equal ordination and treatment of membership in our church. CARA should be asked why didn't they ask the more obvious questions like what would it take to have the 76% who have left come back, and get the ages of the weekly catholic women goers and the 76 % who are not going because that would be more eye opening for many Catholics who would like Catholicism to continue. It would be more constructive for our church leaders also to know the truth on this issue.

I have already read many non-biased surveys with larger source bases for what the youth who have left Catholicism need to even consider coming back. That is also what this survey doesn't show - our church must become real, it must become Christian, it must introduce same justice which means same ordination, sacraments, and consecration to all of its members who are called to those sacraments equally and no longer judge by flesh.

If we want women to come home and feel welcomed and not abused by their church family, everyone must be treated the same, and offered all same sacraments, benefits and opportunities to serve in our church, and in all the same ways with the same exact respect, prestige and authority given to all according to what the position allows.

Vince Killoran
2 months 1 week ago

This is a thoughtful article that goes to the heart of much of the divisiveness in the Church today. The charge that polling is flawed because it isn't focused on "real" Catholics is a cudgel in the culture wars. A few years ago one of my uber-conservative fellow parishioners charged that I wasn't a "real" Catholic. Since she couldn't claim that this was because I didn't attend Mass weekly--I sat two pews back from her--she created a new criteria (something having to do with her understanding of Church teachings).

Tim O'Leary
2 months 1 week ago

Vince - the cudgel can be used by both sides. If one includes 53% women who rarely or never attend any sacraments, one is going to get an exaggerated picture of divisiveness (those who show up vs. those who don't) and a picture of marked doctrinal confusion. While I think Mass and Confession attendance is an easy test to distinguish practicing Catholics from cultural/ex-Catholics, it isn't perfect. Some studies show those who attend Mass do so not because they believe what the Church teaches, but because they think it culturally useful for them or their family, from habit or some other reason. Some basic questions about beliefs (such as the divinity of Christ, Heaven and Hell, the Real Presence) are also useful in getting a better idea of "what Catholics believe." Many polls relying on self-identification alone find lots of ignorance about the faith, including majorities that don't believe in the Real Presence. A CARA poll in 2008 found that 91% of those who attend Mass weekly believe in the Real Presence, vs. 40% of those who don't. That still leaves 9% of regular attendees who do not believe in this central doctrine.

WILLIAM ULWELLING
2 months 1 week ago

The startling demographic (1/22/18 America Magazine, pg.6) that only 1% of American religious sisters are under the age of 40 also represents the expression of an opinion. Young catholic women are voting with their feet. Joining an institution of women within a patriarchal organization seems particularly unappealing to a modern woman.

How could women see forbidding priesthood to women other than as a sign of a patriarchal church? Patriarchy in the Church in the modern world promotes domination of women, and gender inequality. By making patriarchy a necessary part of the package of Catholicism, we are putting women in a predicament in which they must accept patriarchy or reject all the other parts of the package they hold dear.

I don't worry about the Catholic women who have "left." I worry about us men left behind. Here we sit, infallible and patriarchal, wondering where everybody went.

William Ulwelling, MD

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you William, you are correct Patriarchy, especially when lineage plays no part in who rules our church becomes a bias that's only purpose left is to subordinate and oppress women. It has done that very well for a good 1800 years. Christ never taught in any gospel that the church should be run by men or that women could not be its equal spiritual leaders. The apostles were called to end patriarchy by fulfilling with their Abrahamic blood the promises made to Abraham and King David. After this symbol is fulfilled there is no need for any leaders, ordained or otherwise, to be Jew over Gentile or Men over Women.

I, personally, am staying and fighting for justice but yes, I too see us losing many more people, especially young men and women, from our church if we do not put a complete end to this misogynistic tradition of degrading women as lesser sacred human beings. Peace Brother - it is nice to know people care.

Becky Schmitt
2 months 1 week ago

Begs the question: who is defining/describing "church" ? The "hierarchical model is not the only model.

Mike McDermott
2 months 1 week ago

I prefer the term “Serious” Catholic rather than “Real” Catholic.

If you are not going to Mass on Sundays and holy days you are not serious.
If you are not going to confession at least once a year you are not serious.
If you are not engaged in personal prayer you are not serious.
If you object to the doctrines of the Church as written in the Catechism you are not serious.
If you are not volunteering to help your parish or a service ministry you are not serious.
If you are not giving $$$ to your parish or to charity you are not serious.

Unserious casual or cultural Catholic women (and men) need to be understood, and they need to be evangelized and catechized in a welcoming, caring, and compassionate way.

Šime Skelin
2 months 1 week ago

If you object to the doctrines of the Church as written in the Catechism you are not serious. Exactly! God bless!

Catherine McKeen
2 months 1 week ago

It seems to me the discussion inspired by the survey demonstrates what Seamus Heaney called the "autocracy of personality." Why not look outward at the big picture: if it is to survive, the Church needs money. Unless we are to return to house churches, parishes need to be supported.

All these folks who stay away from the Eucharist that is celebrated in parishes because they are offended, hurt, annoyed, etc., well, your home may not be here when you decide to return. Like other great enduring institutions, the Church is a business. Serious Catholics get that.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Hi Catherine,

I have been hurt, annoyed and offended by our church since God called me to ordained priesthood in my teens. I am also staying and fund my parish and give to other religious communities of which I am a part. However, I believe you are missing your own point. The people who hardly ever go aren't going to be the ones most devastated when we have few churches left. It will be the ones like me and you who will feel it the most. So instead of warning those who have been so hurt they just gave up and hardly ever go, perhaps you should warn those like yourself and I that if we don't start listening to the genuine criticisms regarding our unjust rules in certain areas, we will indeed be the ones truly devastated, and that time may not be long off.

Catherine McKeen
2 months 1 week ago

Hello Nora,
I find there are many people who regret that their teenage aspirations did not succeed. But in the case of those like yourself, who desire the cultic priesthood, there must be some real comfort in the "priesthood of all believers." I see many women living that vocation in practical and imaginative ways.

Some years ago, visiting Oxford, I attended a morning service at an Anglican church. The celebrant was a woman; the service was very similar to our Roman Catholic Mass. There were just three people attending, including myself, and there was no preaching for such a small number. I spoke afterward to the celebrant, who told me she left the Roman church so she could be ordained a priest. If I wanted cultic priesthood more than anything else in my life, I guess I would join a Protestant or some other community for that purpose. The alternative, I think, is to dive more deeply into all the possibilities that come with "the priesthood of all believers" in the RC church. I do not intend to "warn" anybody. I just want to pay attention to what I see as the objective truth.

Anne Chapman
2 months 1 week ago

I started attending an Episcopal Church about 8 years ago. One of the things that drew me in, and kept me coming back, were the homilies. There is a male priest and a female priest. Both are wonderful priests. Both are very pastoral and both give excellent homilies, far better, consistently better, than I ever heard in the decades of attending RC mass every week. The first homily I heard by the woman priest made me want to stand up and shout YES! SHE UNDERSTANDS! It was the first homily I had ever heard by a woman, instead of a celibate male. God made them male and female in God's image. But the Catholic church has chosen to ignore that truth. It has instead chosen to shut out the feminine completely. I listened to this priest (and dozens of her homilies since) and understood what real complementarity is - and realized that the RC church is actually choosing to operate with half a brain, shooting themselves in the foot while they are at it. BTW, this church has a large and active congregation, with a majority drawn from many other denominations. They outnumber the cradle Episcopalians. A large number are former Catholics, but there are many who are formerly evangelical protestants. Former Quakers, former Baptists. Generalizing based on one service in an English church is not a solid foundation on which to form an opinion. BTW, most students at Oxford do not bother with church, just as most students in the US in non-sectarian universities do not bother with church. A significant percentage of the entire population of Oxford is connected to the university. One of my children spent two years at Oxford and we visited England and Oxford often.

Some like to point out that the Catholics in England attend mass more often than do the Anglicans. They neglect to point out that this is largely due to the influx of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants to England, just as the pews in the US have been filled by Latino immigrants.

Sandi Sinor
2 months 1 week ago

Most won't return. This survey did not even attempt to talk to the women who have already left for good - in record numbers. The dramatic decline in marriages in the church and in infant baptisms (the lowest since CARA began publishing stats), shows that these young women have no interest in returning. So it seems that figuring out ways to keep those who self-identify as Catholic, while only being Christmas-Easter mass attenders might mean reaching out to those who are so disaffected that they don't even self-identify as Catholic anymore. The reasons they left might inform those struggling to hang on to those who remain as to what might be done.

But, it is likely that nothing can be done because many of these women have left due to teachings on birth control and marriage that they cannot support in good conscience. The biggest reason is that they do not wish to raise their own children in a church that teaches that women are inferior to men in the church - second class citizens according to current doctrine. The only people who can change these things are celibate males who have no desire to open all seven sacraments to the 51% of the church whom they believe exist to bear and raise children and to serve men as "helpers"
.
Those who are concerned about the decline in the money take from the pews might reflect on how their own attitudes [expressed by many in comments on this and other Catholic websites) drive people away from those same pews. They hold themselves out as "real" Catholics, but seem to have little understanding that being a "real" Catholic also means being a "real" christian.

The more who are driven out by the self-appointed arbiters of "real" Catholicism means less money to support the parishes, and more parish closures.

Many leave their "homes" because the dysfunction is harming them, and they are helpless to do anything about the harmful dysfunction. This very often includes church "homes". Studies show that young, educated women are now leaving the church in the same or greater numbers as the men, who traditionally have left church in higher numbers than women. These young women have left as a matter of conscience, and self-preservation, and they don't wish to subject their children to the same harm they incurred.

House churches that create genuine community, share the bread and wine as was done at the Last Supper and in the early church house communities (no priests) and who call their own leaders might be the best thing that could happen.

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