- Richard Rodriguez at the Sesquicentennial symposium on "Migration: Past, Present, and Future" (pg. 26)
- "Fellow citizen," one freshman's journey to a naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- Scenes from the naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- "The Future of Catholic Periodicals"—a panel of editors discusses (pg. 40)
- Bishop Robert McElroy's talk on "The Challenge of Catholic Teaching on War and Peace in the Present Moment" (pg. 42)
- Peter Fallon at the Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival (pg. 48)
- "Mile 21: The day after," scenes from the April 16 Mass for Healing and Hope (pg. 10)
- "Anniversary moments," capturing the range of Sesquicentennial events (pg. 32)
- Close-ups of early diplomas (Holy Cross's and Boston College's) and the University's current one (pg. 13)
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Surveying the membership of Voice of the Faithful
In 1929, the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr published a book called The Social Sources of Denominationalism. In it, he traced the divisions that have plagued American Protestant churches—race and region and ethnicity, as well as social class. He pointed to Methodists north and south of the Mason-Dixon line and asked what theological differences justified their division. He pointed to white Baptists and black Baptists and asked the same question, just as he pointed to his own German-language Lutherans and wondered why they couldn’t share communion with Lutherans who speak Swedish. He also noted the disturbing regularity with which religious groups that start out as an expression of ordinary working people’s concerns eventually become established and comfortable and disdainful of the very people whose discontents begat them. Such, he said, were the “social sources” of denominationalism. People whose lives are shaped by different social realities often find it difficult to remain part of a single religious group.
Fifty years later, my own work on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) re-visited this question. Here was a denomination that had been born of the very racial and regional forces of division that Niebuhr described. It had been held together for more than a century by a combination of regional solidarity and organizational prowess. But by the late 1970s, it was undergoing tumultuous internal conflicts that would eventually lead to its transformation into a conservative political powerhouse, and to the departure of its progressive wing. While the rhetoric of contention was full of theology (and there were theological differences at stake), it reflected also the real differences in social worlds of the conservatives and moderates.
Many factors spelled the doom of the movement to counter a fundamentalist takeover; one of them was that its adherents did not live in the social world inhabited by the vast mainstream of their denomination. Even where there was substantial theological agreement between the progressives and the mainstream, the progressive movement’s leaders had forgotten how to talk to the people who might have become their allies. And even where there was substantial disagreement between the fundamentalists and that same mainstream, fundamentalists understood the social terrain on which the battle was being fought. It is no surprise that fundamentalist activists won the war and got to keep the spoils, while the more progressive wing has retreated into a variety of new organizational homes.
Denominations, of course, are a Protestant phenomenon. One of the remarkable aspects of the Roman Catholic Church has been its ability to hold together immensely varied social worlds. But in 2002, with reports emerging of clergy sexual abuse on a scale few could have imagined, a new force began to strain the fabric of the Church in the United States. It began with a group of Catholics meeting in a church basement in a suburb outside Boston to formulate a lay response to the scandals. Within months, chapters of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) were forming around the country, often meeting in members’ homes. Nationally, VOTF now claims 40,000 members, individuals who have contributed support or simply asked to be included in its mailings and e-mails. (Anecdotal accounts suggest a tapering off of meeting attendance.) Who has joined Voice of the Faithful? From what social world do they come? Is it different from the world of others in the Church who haven’t signed on? The answers have much to tell us about the shifting terrain of American Catholicism.
The first thing to be said about members of Voice of the Faithful is that, in all sorts of ways, they are as Catholic as they come. The vast majority (93 percent) were born into the Church. Both parents were baptized Catholics, and these, their children, began life as baptized infants. They have been thoroughly immersed in the Church’s culture and institutions for their whole lives. While only 15 percent of American adults went to any sort of religious school, an astonishing 70 percent of VOTF’s members and leaders attended Catholic grade schools, and 61 percent continued into Catholic high schools. (Compare those figures with the U.S. lay Catholic population as a whole—of whom 49 percent attended a Catholic grade school and 29 percent attended a Catholic high school.) Today, VOTF members are more likely than the general Catholic population to be registered in a parish (85 percent versus 67 percent) and to attend Mass weekly (65 percent versus 34 percent).
VOTF members are very likely to say that their faith is among the most important aspects of their lives (62 percent)—more than American Catholics overall (44 percent). They pray when they aren’t at church—79 percent of them say daily or more, as compared with 62 percent of nonmembers. And nearly half (43 percent) participate in ministries of service, to the sick or the poor, for example, more than once a month.
Among the most important social sources of this movement, then, is the Church itself. VOTF members differ from other Catholics in their high degree of devotion to the Church. But deep formation in the Church is not a sufficient explanation for this movement. There are more mundane social factors at work as well.
To get at these, it is useful to think about the various generations of VOTF members in turn.
VOTF members belonging to the oldest generation of Catholics, those born before 1941 and shaped in the pre–Vatican II Church, are remarkable in a number of ways. First, there are so many of them. Forty-one percent of VOTF’s membership is over the age of 65, compared with just 17 percent of the U.S. Catholic population. Sometimes called the “Greatest Generation,” this cohort has consistently invested in lifelong organizational membership and leadership, within the Church and outside it. Their habit was to join institutions and work their way up. Their commitment to building organizations has been critical in sustaining churches and volunteer organizations of all sorts. Today, many are retired and have free time and reasonable resources of health and money. We should not be surprised to find a disproportionate number of older Catholics lending their energies to a new organizational effort in the Church.
But these are not typical retired Catholics. They are the best-educated and most experienced leaders of their generation. While only about 12 percent of Catholics over 65 graduated from college, 87 percent of older VOTF members have at least a bachelor’s degree. In fact, nearly half of these members have a Catholic college degree. In the years surrounding World War II, they were surely in the vanguard of Catholics moving up into the American middle class. In all the ways that higher education shapes a life, they have experienced broadened horizons and opportunities, enjoyed diverse neighbors and friends, and acquired a greater willingness to question authority. For several decades, this group of American Catholics, now among the Church’s senior citizens, have lived in a very different social world from that inhabited by most of their generation, whose horizons typically were shaped by neighborhood and ethnicity, family and parish.
The older VOTF members long have occupied key positions within the Church. They were the natural leaders who sat on school boards (24 percent of them claim this experience), finance committees (21 percent), parish councils (41 percent), and other Church committees (60 percent). Over half (54 percent) have taught the next generation of their parish’s children in CCD or PSR (Parish School of Religion), and nearly that portion have been lectors (47 percent) or Eucharistic ministers (44 percent). They have been willing to serve, and they have had the skills to do so.
Following behind them, chronologically anyway, is the Vatican II generation (the boomers, more or less, born between 1941 and 1970), those Catholics who came of age in the midst of the changes brought by the Second Vatican Council. Almost half the members of VOTF and a full 60 percent of the founders fall in this generation, compared with only 41 percent of the adult U.S. Catholic population. They are the movement’s generational center of gravity. Boomer VOTF Catholics are very similar to older members in their trajectory through Catholic homes, Catholic schools, and Catholic colleges (and also Catholic marriages). When they were growing up, weekly Mass attendance was still normative and parish schools were still plentiful. Even if they lived in the suburbs, the Church played an important part in their childhood and adolescent years.
Then they went off to college. Like their older VOTF colleagues, boomer VOTF members are also considerably more likely to be college graduates than the average lay Catholic of their generation (88 percent versus 23 percent). Indeed, across all the generations, VOTF members are disproportionately likely to have attended college, and a Catholic college at that. Fully 27 percent of all VOTF members were in Catholic colleges in the years surrounding the Second Vatican Council, a time of both cultural and religious revolution. Being at a Catholic college in the 1960s and 1970s was a considerably different experience from being there in the 1940s or early 1950s. In the thick of movements for change, many things seemed possible that hadn’t before.
The sociologist William D’Antonio and theologian Anthony Pogorelc, SS, who surveyed VOTF’s membership in 2004, and whose data and interviews I cite throughout much of this article, quote a VOTF member as saying, “We are the ‘over the hill gang’ in love with the changes promised in the Vatican II documents only to find that our hierarchy ‘deep-sixed’ them and hoped we would forget.” I heard a similar sentiment from a sixtyish woman recently. She proudly told of a young reporter who visited her VOTF group and was astonished to find mostly old people. This woman said, “We’re old people who are still revolutionaries!” The members of her generation have been formed by the revolutions they were a part of, and distinctively formed by experiencing those revolutions in a deeply Catholic environment.
In this way, boomer Catholic progressives parallel their Southern Baptist counterparts. The leaders of the SBC’s progressive wing were also more likely to have attended a college of their faith than were conservatives. Many of them cut their revolutionary teeth in the civil rights movement. From within a deeply Baptist environment, they learned to work for and expect change. In the 1960s and 1970s, some of the revolutionary fervor in American society was fueled by commitments nourished on the campuses of religious colleges, where solid religious roots supported active social engagement.
Both the pre-boomer and the boomer VOTF generations left their Catholic college campuses as exceptionally knowledgeable, active, and loyal Catholics. They are likely to have read at least some of the Vatican II documents (63 percent) and to have taken a theology class (36 percent), and they stay informed through reading Catholic periodicals. What they have never done in any great numbers is join the traditional Catholic men’s and women’s societies.
Except for the 33 percent of VOTF members who are in the Knights of Columbus and the 10 percent who are in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Catholics of VOTF have not been found in the ethnic and social groups that mark the Catholic experience for many. New forms of assembly—whether organized movements like Cursillo, RENEW, and Marriage Encounter, or small Christian communities—that cropped up in the years following Vatican II are another matter. In groups such as these, the faithful of VOTF have been exercising their voices for some time.
The absence of ties to traditional gender-based Catholic organizations is a hint that gender may occupy a different place in the social world of VOTF members. And in fact, 60 percent of the leaders of the VOTF movement are women, primarily of the Vatican II generation. Highly educated, boomer-generation women were the pioneers in second-wave feminism—more interested in forming women’s support groups than in joining ladies’ societies, and more committed, within the Church, to using their leadership skills than to meekly doing whatever the priest asked them to do. Over the last 40 years, many Catholics of both genders have come to understand that “feminist Catholic” is not an oxymoron.
In Voice of the Faithful, men and women across the generations are equally Catholic, equally knowledgeable and active, and equally well educated. For a Church in which women and men have historically had very different experiences and privileges, this uniformity is striking. There are small, lingering differences within the oldest generation in education, work experience, and parish roles, but otherwise the men and the women in the movement are remarkably similar. The one exception to this pattern is that VOTF women are more liberal politically (42 percent) than VOTF men (15 percent). Apparently one can be a politically conservative man in VOTF (31 percent of male members say they are), but it’s highly unlikely that a politically conservative woman will find a home there (not one female member surveyed defined herself as such). That difference aside, VOTF men and women seem to share very similar backgrounds and similar levels of engagement—and to be equally unhappy with the way the Church is being run.
The most recent generation of Catholics, born after 1970—I’ll call them post–Vatican II Catholics—is considerably underrepresented in the ranks of VOTF. Still, the younger members whom one does find have a story that varies only slightly from that of their older compatriots. They are just as likely to be cradle Catholics, but less likely to have gone to Catholic schools (56 percent attended Catholic grade school versus 72 percent of the older two cohorts), and even less likely to be sending their own children to Catholic schools (32 percent versus 50 percent). Compared to the older members, they are less of a presence at Mass—38 percent versus 68 percent say they attend at least weekly, but that is still ahead of post–Vatican II lay Catholics in general (who attend at the rate of 26 percent). The strong Catholic culture that enveloped the earlier generations has been less in evidence for this one.
Given their stage in life, it is probably not surprising that these younger VOTF members are less active in some forms of parish leadership and in VOTF itself. Preoccupied with family formation and establishing a career, they appear, for now at least, to have consigned volunteer commitments of all kinds to a back seat. They have also not been especially active in RENEW, Call to Action, Cursillo, and the like. They are simply not as organizationally invested as the older generations.
Like their older colleagues, the small number of post–Vatican II Catholics who have joined VOTF are there in large measure because they are unhappy with priests and bishops who abused their trust and failed to protect children from the sexual misconduct of clergy. One interviewee linked the decision to participate in VOTF to “my outrage at the bishops’ behavior; they failed the laity.” Another said, “I’ve had enough of people who are out of touch making decisions that impact me without so much as lending an ear to hear if I had anything to say about it.” Eighty-five percent of VOTF members strongly believe that the Church hierarchy is “out of touch,” compared with 19 percent of the U.S. laity overall. VOTF members are far more likely than the average parishioner to be unhappy with the way they are treated by priests (44 percent versus 17 percent).
The solutions called for by Voice of the Faithful have largely revolved around introducing greater lay involvement in decision-making at every level of the Church. Said one interviewee, “The faith experience of all the People of God should be equally valued in decision-making in the Church. The elevated clerical power must go.” Here, however, VOTF members are not especially distinctive. Ninety-seven percent of American Catholics think that the laity ought to have at least some role in making decisions about parish finances, for instance, and 14 percent think the laity should have the final say. There is broad national support for lay participation at the diocesan level, as well. Eighty-four percent of the VOTF membership and 71 percent of all U.S. Catholic laypeople believe the laity should have a say in selecting priests. While the average lay Catholic may not be as intensely disillusioned with official Church leadership, VOTF is not out of the mainstream in its call for laypeople to take more responsibility in Church life. Nor is there any significant difference among VOTF members on these issues. To the extent that this is a movement about lay participation, the movement’s message is unanimously supported by its members. And the ranks of possible recruits are legion.
So why aren’t more lay Catholics joining VOTF? My hunch is that the problem is not the message, but the social world of the messengers. With respect to age and gender and education and ethnicity, VOTF represents a different world from the mainstream of the American Catholic Church. Age matters because young Catholics scarcely see themselves reflected in VOTF’s membership. Gender matters because most of the Church would find the world of well-educated feminist Catholics to be unlike their own. Education matters because the rarified world of high-power business, the professions, and graduate degrees is not the world of most American Catholic adults (only 32 percent of whom have graduated from college). And ethnicity matters, not because there are ethnic divisions within the ranks of VOTF, but because there aren’t. VOTF’s members have formed a strong and cohesive social movement out of the social world they share, and they are overwhelmingly white. The rest of the nation’s Catholics aren’t joining because were they to walk into a VOTF meeting, they wouldn’t find anyone who looks or sounds like them.
Here, perhaps, a brief cautionary tale from the Baptist Battles may be in order. As I watched progressive Baptist leaders attempt to mobilize a movement to oppose the conservative takeover, I was struck by how different the two sides looked. The progressives (in the 1980s) were likely to be in tweeds and button-down collars, and they were more apt to be carrying briefcases than Bibles (although there might well be a Bible in the briefcase). The people who ended up following the conservatives, on the other hand, often carried very big and very visible Bibles, and the women sometimes carried theirs in what a friend of mine calls a “Bible cozy.” They loved it when the music leaned in the direction of country, and their clothes trended to polyester. Now, there is nothing theological about any of this, but somewhere along the way, progressives had learned to think of Bible cozies as tacky and country music as lowbrow. It’s little wonder that they had a hard time making a convincing argument that they were the real Baptists, even with their sterling Baptist credentials.
Like those progressive Baptist leaders, VOTF’s members and leaders have formidable religious and cultural capital to expend on their movement. They can draw on their comfortable incomes, extensive education, and relatively high status in American society. They can also draw, to rhetorical advantage, on their deep Catholic upbringing and schooling to establish their legitimacy within the Church. Given the enormous investment VOTF members have made in Catholicism and the impressive credentials they bring to the table, they might plausibly claim to be the “real Catholics.”
The only problem with that claim is that it will inevitably bump up against other ways in which the world of VOTF is not the world of the rest of the Church. Theirs is not a voice that speaks for the Church’s growing immigrant population, or for Catholics who are less educated. Nor, at least not yet, is it a voice for the younger generation. And it is probably not a voice for Catholics who thus far have opted not to invest their energy in shaping the future of the Church.
Diversity within the Church is, of course, nothing new. The existence of a dissenting movement also is not new. This is where the “social sources” argument reaches its limit. While age, education, and upbringing help us to understand where the Voice of the Faithful movement has come from and who is likely to join, these factors do not tell us how the movement is likely to progress. Unlike Baptists, even the most disgruntled Catholics can’t vote out their leaders. Indeed, in the Catholic Church the most crucial faithful voice is not a lay voice at all. The irony for VOTF is that it is dependent on the very authority it opposes to grant what it desires.
When progressive Baptists were finally forced out of the SBC, they grieved, but they fairly easily moved toward starting new Baptist groups. They assumed that they had the option to go out on their own. That is not the Catholic pattern. While more VOTF members are willing to consider leaving the Church than are ordinary Catholics (23 percent versus 14 percent), the numbers for both groups are quite low. The years ahead will bring new challenges as this lay organization continues to explore both what it means to have a voice and what it means to be faithful.
Nancy T. Ammerman is a professor of sociology of religion at Boston University and the author of Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners (2005). Her article is adapted from a paper delivered at Boston College in fall 2005, part of a symposium introducing the results of a two-year study of the Voice of the Faithful movement conducted by Catholic University’s William D’Antonio and Anthony Pogorelc, SS. (Comparisons to the general U.S. Catholic population in Ammerman’s article are drawn from a 2005 Gallup survey and the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey.) The symposium was sponsored by BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center. In 2007, the presentations and papers became a book entitled Voices of the Faithful: Loyal Catholics Striving for Change, edited by D’Antonio and Pogorelc and published by the center.