View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
Questioning authority, keeping the faith
The latest ‘Catholics in America’ survey
In his opening remarks at a November 2 conference on the American Catholic laity held in Gasson 100, Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) saluted the work of Catholic sociologists. They “can be a rather lonely lot,” he said, because they deliver data that doesn’t always fit the prevailing narrative. Roberts, NCR‘s editor-at-large and author of The Emerging Church: A Community’s Search for Itself (2011), recalled one researcher, Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin, who in 1993 projected a 40 percent drop in the number of active diocesan priests in the United States by 2005 from the high-water mark in the 1960s. His forecast was branded a fabrication by Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, who stated that followers of Christ “live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his Church—not by sociologists.” Schoenherr, Roberts noted, turned out to have had “very accurate numbers.”
Roberts’s story was an apt beginning to the daylong gathering of theologians and sociologists convened to consider the just-released study “Catholics in America: Persistence and Change,” the fifth in a series of surveys tracking U.S. Catholic beliefs, practices, and demographics during the past quarter century. Conducted online with a national sample of 1,442 self-identified Catholic adults between April 25 and May 2, 2011, the survey was designed in consultation with the Pew Research Center and funded in part by NCR. The conference, held a week after the report’s release, was arranged by the Church in the 21st Century Center and attracted an audience of some 50 students, faculty, and members of the community for the first public analysis of the results.
Speakers at the conference included the three sociologists who conducted the study: William V. D’Antonio, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America; Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University; and Michele Dillon, chair of the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire. Two Boston College theologians, Lisa Sowle Cahill and Hosffman Ospino, presented commentaries on the data.
D’Antonio, 85, is the sole member of the original research team. Bespectacled and sporting a purple bow tie, he serenely announced “the impending inexorable demise of the pre–Vatican II generation” of Catholics, those born in 1940 or earlier. D’Antonio smiled and noted that he was speaking of his own cohort, dubbed the “pray, pay, and obey” Catholics. During the first survey in 1987, they made up approximately one-third of the adult U.S. Catholic population. Today they account for one in 10, making this their final appearance in the “Catholics in America” series. “Five years from now,” D’Antonio explained, “there won’t be enough of them to constitute an adequate survey sample.”
The surveys have tracked four generations thus far. Vatican II Catholics—the baby boomers—have themselves declined sharply as a share of the population, from nearly half of those polled in 1987 to just a third today. Post–Vatican II Catholics, born between 1961 and 1978 and popularly known as Gen-X, slightly outnumber boomers in the Church. The “millennials,” who were born between 1979 and 1993 and debuted in the 2005 survey, now constitute almost a quarter of the adult Catholic population.
D’Antonio highlighted one finding in particular about millennial Catholics: 45 percent of them are Hispanic, and, given the continued flow of immigration from Latin America, “they may well become the first generation of American Catholics in which Hispanics are a majority,” he said.
The “persistence” underlined in the report’s title mainly concerns core theological convictions. Almost three-quarters of the Catholics surveyed consider the Resurrection “very important.” Around two-thirds offer the same reply when asked about the Eucharist and about Church teachings on Mary. The “change” in the survey’s title is reflected in the laity’s attitudes toward Church hierarchy. In 2005, more than half of pre–Vatican II Catholics rated the Vatican’s teaching authority as “very important,” while just 27 percent of millennials held the same view. Today “there are no differences” among the generations on this question, D’Antonio reported, with only three in 10 giving such weight to Vatican authority. D’Antonio speculated that the continued emergence of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere explains some of this shift.
The main prop at the conference was a large screen mounted in the corner of the room, on which Mary Gautier displayed data indicating the numerical decline of priests (down by one-quarter since 1987) and the changes this may bring to parish life. Almost all respondents (93 percent) accept the idea of “sharing a priest with one or more other parishes,” Gautier related, and three in four respond favorably to the notion of someone else running the parish “with visiting priests for sacraments.” However, most are averse to reducing the number of Masses.
Michele Dillon focused on Catholic commitment, which continues to be strong, she said, noting that more than two-thirds of respondents say they “cannot imagine being anything but Catholic.” At the same time, she underscored that lay people have formed their own ideas about what it means to be “a good Catholic.” For example, most feel that one can be a good Catholic without attending Mass each week (78 percent) and without agreeing with Church teachings on such matters as birth control and abortion. Some 60 percent believe it is possible to be a good Catholic and not give money or time to the poor. Only one in five Catholics says the pope and other Church leaders are “the proper arbiters of right and wrong” on these and other questions, including homosexuality.
According to the survey, said Dillon, Catholic women are more likely than men to uphold Church dogma on Jesus, transubstantiation, and other aspects of faith, yet less likely, by a margin of 57 to 46 percent, to back the hierarchy on issues related to family, gender, and sexuality.
Dillon summarized, “Women are more liberal, if you will, when it comes to Church authority, but they are more dedicated to the Church.” (This and other studies have also found higher rates of Mass attendance among women.)
One thread of the first three presentations was that Catholics are “highly autonomous” in their thinking and “likely to privilege their own moral judgment rather than Vatican teaching,” as Dillon phrased it. To which Lisa Cahill, Boston College’s Monan Professor of Theology, responded: “Really?”
In her remarks, Cahill did not second-guess the data. “I’m a theologian, not a social scientist,” she said. She also had no doubt that Catholics are deferring far less to Church authorities when deciding on matters of sexuality. But this doesn’t mean they’re thinking “autonomously,” she pointed out. “They’re listening to the surrounding culture, which can have good but also troubling consequences,” Cahill said, citing the strong pull of societal values that have helped bring about high divorce rates and the youth hookup culture.
Young adult Catholics, Cahill observed, are not necessarily “looking for the Church to be more liberal on sexual ethics—they already live in a culture of permissiveness. . . . They’re looking for an alternative to a culture in which anything seems to go.” As she spoke, the three researchers, seated next to the lectern, scribbled notes for the first and only time during the conference.
The subject of young adult Catholics resurfaced in the Q&A following Cahill’s remarks. As audience members asked about the spiritual lives of the younger faithful, Karen Kiefer ’82, associate director of the Church in the 21st Century Center, intervened to suggest, “Let’s hear from a student.” Meg Stapleton Smith ’13, speaking from the back row, said that while Catholics her age are not nearly as attracted to formal worship as were previous generations many are deeply interested in the Church’s spiritual traditions (trends also borne out in the study).
“Ignatian spirituality is something the students here are drawn to,” said Smith, a theology major from White Plains, New York. She cited as one example the campus organization Cura, made up of 15 groups of six-to-10 students who meet weekly for an hour of prayer and reflection.
The afternoon portion of the conference focused in part on the demographics of Hispanics. Boston College School of Theology and Ministry assistant professor Hosffman Ospino asserted that the Church is scarcely grappling with the challenges of what may well become a largely Hispanic laity. In the United States, “Hispanic Catholics still live in the margins of Church and society,” said Ospino, with “very few resources . . . invested in Hispanic youth ministry.”
The afternoon session also highlighted findings about Catholics and political parties. D’Antonio pointed to punditry that says Republicans are “more religious, or friendlier to religion” than Democrats. This is evidently not true among Catholics, he said, citing the survey. On three of four core beliefs—touching on Christ’s divinity, the sacraments, and Mary—”no significant differences existed” between Catholics of the two parties, he said. They diverged only on a fourth core belief identified by the researchers: “helping the poor.” Catholic Democrats were more likely than their Republican coreligionists (72 versus 61 percent) to see this as very important.