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Paul LakelandFebruary 02, 2009
Sense of the Faithfulby Jerome P. BaggettOxford Univ. Press. 320p $29.95

Much of what the general public makes of the shape and fortunes of Catholicism in the United States today is taken either from the well-publicized pronouncements of church leaders or the perspective of journalists. The consequence is that the figure Catholicism cuts in society is of a rule-bound and often seemingly negative community struggling from one crisis to another. Yet American Catholics and their leaders know that this public face is just the one-tenth of the iceberg that is visible above the water line. Under the surface, Catholicism is much more pluralistic, complex and sometimes internally divided. There is a lot going on in those deep and sometimes murky waters that does not reach the eyes of journalists and that does not always seem to have heard the words of bishops. For a recent example, compare the agonized reaction to the election of Barack Obama on the part of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference with the generally enthusiastic reception by many Catholics. Obama increased his share of the Catholic vote even as he apparently offended many bishops.

Bernard Lonergan, S.J., famously advised the virtues of attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness and, in Method in Theology, promoted the quality of being loving and open to change. Everything must follow from attentiveness, and Jerome Baggett’s new book on how American Catholics live their faith is a marvelous example of how participant-observer sociology can shed light on the life of the church beneath the public face of the Catholic Church. Baggett and his student assistants conducted extensive interviews with about 150 Bay Area Catholics who are active in one of six parishes. The parishes are named, not the individuals. The interview schedule (printed as Appendix B) includes questions on the parishioners’ level of activism within church and society, their sense of their Catholic identity and the extent of their agreement with church authority.

Baggett, an associate professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, also asked them to reflect on some Scripture passages and to respond to a few hot-button issues (poverty, abortion, women’s ordination, the Iraq War and the scandal of sexual abuse) and how if at all these had affected the respondents’ faith. Calling on the bishops to pay attention to the way active Catholics express their faith, Baggett makes the significant point that bishops should be aware that even the most committed of Catholics “negotiate with their faith tradition, experience real uncertainties about it, and look askance at many of its more institutionalized features.” Whether the bishops would consider this phenomenon, as Baggett does, to be “bracing” is an entirely different question.

Baggett owes something of his approach and many of his questions to the book American Catholics Today (2007), in which Bill D’Antonio, Jim Davidson, Mary Gauthier and the late Dean Hoge displayed the results of their fourth survey of Catholic opinion. Unlike them, however, Baggett focused on active Catholics rather than those who merely identified themselves as Catholic, and his interviews went into much greater depth. As a result, his findings complement those of the earlier work. As one might expect, more active Catholics are more commonly at church and less likely to contemplate leaving the church than their less involved counterparts. But with the exception of the one highly conservative community Baggett included in his survey, they seem to be largely open to the ordination of women, an end to mandatory celibacy or a better place for homosexuals in the church. But what makes this book so enlightening is not so much the comparative statistics, interesting as they are, as the inclusion of personal stories that put some flesh on the bones of the bare data. When Baggett lets us eavesdrop on real conversations, the complexity of how we Catholics construct our faith identities is quite apparent and quite fascinating. In the very first interview one of the respondents “eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended moniker ‘cafeteria Catholic’ as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity for discernment.”

This kind of Annales approach to Catholicism reveals much fascinating data but, as the author recognizes, leaves many questions. It establishes beyond dispute that American Catholics are an independent and somewhat messy lot, not always agreeing with their bishops and only infrequently conforming when they either do not understand episcopal teaching or do not accept it.

But what is to be made of all of this? Baggett is appropriately nonjudgmental in representing his conclusions and wonders how much the bishops will attend to this kind of information as a resource for their pastoral outlook. Catholics, he suggests, are neither simply the “seekers” that many non-churched Americans seem to be, nor are they the “dwellers” of an earlier age. Instead they are “indwelt seekers,” people with fierce loyalty to the church but who demand that their tradition must resonate with their experience. This is an accurate observation, though it does not move us very far in the direction of knowing how to channel this kind of conviction within the life of the faith-community. Perhaps the author comes closest to offering a way forward in the important distinction he makes between the subjective and objective dimensions of the “sense of the faithful.” In fact, Vatican II distinguished the sensus fidelium, that body of beliefs that all share and which partakes of Spirit-guaranteed infallibility, and the sensus fidei, the constantly growing, changing, forming and reforming subjective intuition of the faithful about what is right and true. The universal agreement of the former and the supernatural sense of the latter have to work together.

Baggett’s book is an important account of just such a work in progress. One can see the picture he paints as either threatening or full of hope, depending upon how much attention we pay to the dynamic element in the church. But the first-person narratives he offers us and the conclusions he draws ought to go a long way toward taking the fear out of the process.

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