Politics & Policy

The Catholic Weakness

A large proportion of traditional, Mass-going Catholics don’t believe basic Church doctrine. Why not?

Last week I wrote about one piece of data that jumped out from the Austin Institute’s fascinating new study, Relationships in America: the Mormon advantage in transmitting traditional Christian practice and views on many things, from life after death to sex and marriage.

Judging from the comments, many people have a hard time separating a sociological analysis from a theological one. Even many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understandably believe that their particular strain of theology is the key to their relative success. Maybe so. Certainly there is an obvious reciprocal relationship between orthopraxy and orthodoxy (right action and right belief).

But until quite recently, historically speaking, theologically diverse Christian denominations successfully transmitted a marriage culture to their next generations. And other groups in America, with quite different theological views than those of Mormons (for example Modern Orthodox Jews) are also relatively successful at sustaining a distinctive child-rich marriage culture. (The Austin Institute study did not break down Jews into subcategories because the sample size was not large enough to do so.)

Speaking as a Roman Catholic and as an intellectual observer, I want this week to point to another large and important insight that leaps out from the new study data: the relative Catholic weakness. In some sense this is not, of course, news. New York is merging and shutting down parishes to cope with population losses. Progressives are blaming “culture warrior” Cardinal George for a similar loss in the Catholic population of Chicago. Without an influx of Latino immigrants, the shrinking of the Catholic Church in America would be even starker.

The Catholic Church, unlike many other Christian communities, faced a postmodern sexual revolution while in the middle of absorbing massive new changes in church practices, as well as what a fair observer would call equally large disruption in authority structures, after Vatican II. Many Catholic institutions began to lose their distinctively Catholic identity markers: Nuns threw off their habits; Catholic colleges aspired to compete with and resemble their increasingly progressive secular counterparts; partnered gay men became Catholic-school teachers and principals. Cafeteria Catholicism was born and it flourished.

For the Relationships in America study, the Austin Institute interviewed a nationally representative sample of 15,783 people between the ages of 18 and 60; the study separates Catholics by whether they consider themselves “traditional,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or some other kind of Catholic. It also looks at each subgroup’s views and practices by church attendance.

The first thing that leaps out is how divided the Catholic Church in America is, two generations after Vatican II. Traditional Catholic are 5.7 percent of the population; liberal Catholics are slightly more numerous, at 5.8 percent; the plurality of Catholics — 7.5 percent of Americans —  dub themselves “moderate,” while 3.2 percent of Americans choose the label “other” Catholics. The wording of the question may not perfectly map orthodoxy (“traditionalist” Catholics in my world are those who support the Latin Mass, for example, which many perfectly orthodox Catholics are not especially interested in attending).

But the labels are clearly capturing something real, because by every measure in this study (and unsurprisingly), traditional Catholics are more supportive of Catholic teaching and practice than are liberal Catholics, with moderate Catholics falling in between and “other” Catholics generally less actively involved than liberal Catholics. Traditional Catholics are three times as likely as liberal Catholics to attend mass in a given week, for instance (58 percent to 21 percent). They are ten percentage points more likely to say they believe in one of the most basic Christian teachings: life after death (85 percent to 75 percent). Each week in Mass, Catholics like me recite the Creed, which includes our faith in the “resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.” Traditional Catholics are twice as likely as liberal Catholics to say they believe in the resurrection of the body (51 percent to 24 percent). Thirty-five percent of liberal Catholic men consumed porn in the last week, compared with 21 percent of traditional Catholic men, to pick just one measure of self-reported behavior.

Traditional Catholics and liberal Catholics are about equal proportions of the U.S. population, but at Mass on a given Sunday, the balance shifts dramatically. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the data presented, 39.5 percent of Catholics at Mass on any given Sunday are traditional Catholics, 39.5 percent are moderate Catholics, and just 14 percent are liberal Catholics (and 7 percent “other”). Traditional Catholics are a hefty chunk of practicing Catholics but by no means the majority. The Catholic Church in America remains seriously divided.

As I said, generally speaking, this is not news to any practicing Catholic, but getting the proportions right is revealing. Here is what I didn’t know until I looked at this data: Even when you ignore liberal Catholics, and those Catholics in Name Only who never attend church, and you look only at traditional Catholics who attend Mass at least three times a month — the Catholic weakness leaps out.

Let us take a look first at basic doctrine unrelated to the culture wars. Fewer than six in ten traditional Catholics who attend Mass regularly believe in the resurrection of the body (58 percent), compared with 75 percent of Evangelicals who attend services at least three times a month.

Catholic teaching says that weekly Sunday Mass attendance is a serious obligation and missing Mass is a mortal sin. Yet just 58 percent of traditional Catholics are at church in a given week, compared with 74 percent of Evangelicals.

When it comes to sexual-behavior measures in this study, traditional Catholics who are regular churchgoers are slightly less likely to use porn than are Evangelicals (29 percent to 21 percent) but also slightly more likely to report having premarital sex with their spouse (64 percent to 57 percent).

As far as attitudes and values, the situation is bleak. Take cohabitation: When asked whether it is a good idea for couples considering marriage to cohabit first, just 48 percent of churchgoing Catholics firmly disagree, compared with 79 percent of Evangelicals. When asked whether it is “okay” for two people to get together for casual sex, 86 percent of churchgoing Evangelicals disagree, compared with just 65 percent of traditional Catholics.

The Catholic Church is unique in teaching that a sacramental Christian marriage is literally impossible to dissolve. Yet when asked whether married couples with children should stay married, just 45 percent of traditional Catholics who attend Mass regularly definitely agree, compared with 58 percent of churchgoing Evangelicals.

Why this weakness? I invite my readers, especially Catholic converts who can compare and contrast, to help me speculate on why.

Pope Francis has clearly been urging his fellow bishops to refocus on reaching out to the suffering, and on avoiding a narrow and rigid legalism. The experience of both Mormons and Evangelicals suggests that there is a great deal of practical wisdom in this approach. But the Catholic Church is not very good at reaching out warmly and helping people feel they belong, and it is doing a much worse job at “preaching to the converted.” When large chunks of Mass-going traditional Catholics don’t believe in basic doctrines of the Church, something is going very wrong at the most basic level. My guess from 30 years of Mass-going is that they seldom or never hear what the Church teaches.

I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. I will come back to this question in later posts.

But here is the good news: The weakest link can also be the most powerful springboard for change. If the Catholic Church could learn how to do half as good a job as Evangelicals at passing on basic Christian moral and spiritual teaching to the next generation, not only would much suffering be avoided, but American culture would be transformed.

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.

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