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Special Report

The American Catholic laity in 1999


Through a generous grant from the Louisville Institute, with additional funding from the National Catholic Reporter, we have completed our third national survey of American Roman Catholics.

The Gallup Organization has carried out the three surveys.

The first survey took place in the spring of 1987, and was financed by a grant from NCR, with additional financial aid from Fr. Andrew Greeley. The survey instrument itself was designed by a team of sociologists consisting of William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Dean Hoge and Ruth Wallace. It was designed to provide NCR readers with a sense of where the American Catholic laity stood on several questions on the eve of Pope John Paul’s second visit to the United States. A feature article based on the findings was published in NCR in the fall of 1987, followed by American Catholic Laity in a Changing Church, published by Sheed and Ward in 1989.

The findings were valuable, and NCR decided to support a second survey in 1993. We repeated core questions from the 1987 survey, added new ones, and were able to provide a comparative feature essay for NCR in the fall 1993. That survey also became a Sheed and Ward book (1996), Laity, American and Catholic: Transforming the Church.

The Louisville Institute provided the major funding for this third survey in 1999, thus permitting us to have comparative information from three samples of American Roman Catholics over 12 years. NCR provided additional support. Ruth Wallace was busy preparing her latest book on men who run priestless parishes, so Katherine Meyer of The Ohio State University has joined the research team.

The opening essay explores some new findings about Catholic identity, an issue not previously examined by us. It responds to the present-day discussion of “What does it mean to be a Catholic?” and “How are we distinctive?” Professor Hoge points to a series of core elements that a significant majority of Catholics claim, even as they assert that others are more peripheral to their sense of what it means to be Catholic.

By 1999 a number of trends have become clear. Among the most important are the continuing declines in weekly Mass attendance, in the degree to which Catholics continue to cite the church as one of the most important influences in their lives, and on their insistence that they will never leave the church, all of which are discussed in the essay by James Davidson.

At the same time, there are what appear to be opposing trends, toward more personal autonomy regarding rules of sexual conduct, and toward a desire for more participation by the laity in the institutional church’s decision-making processes that have brought forth these rules. Thus, even as the lay people are distancing themselves from the institutional church as the absolute source of moral guidance, they appear to embrace the “People of God” idea that emerged from Vatican II. In this reading, the whole church -- not just the hierarchy -- are the people of God, and church teachings should reflect this reality. This desire for input from the laity, which constitutes the sense of the faithful that Vatican II recognized, becomes clear in these trends.

We examine the new findings in essays that compare Catholics who are registered members of a parish with those who are not, that compare men and women, that look across generations from pre-Vatican II to Generation X Catholics, and that compare Latino/a and other Catholics.

Our final two essays examine the laity’s response to two important topics, the growing priest shortage and trends in marriage.

A major complaint in the past about reports on declining support for the institutional church is that these surveys include people who are barely Catholic and who do not really reflect the active church-going body of Catholics. We have tried to confront that complaint by distinguishing between active, highly committed Catholics and people who identify themselves as Catholic but whose level of commitment is very low. Gender and age cohorts and parish membership also help us refine these broad trends.

The 1999 Official Catholic Directory put the U.S.A. Catholic population at 62,018,436. Our survey is a national representative sample of this Catholic population, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The samples totaled 800 interviews in 1987, 800 in 1993, and 875 in 1999.

These surveys make clear that there is a de facto pluralism within the institutional church. However one reads these trends, Catholics who are committed to the church as regular Mass goers, who would never leave the church, and who say that the church is one of the most important influences in their lives, nevertheless distance themselves from the church’s formal teachings on marriage and sexual issues, urge dialogue with the church hierarchy to achieve a more active participation in church decision-making and continue to raise their voices in support of a married priesthood that includes women.

On the other side, we have identified a core of dormant Catholics, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the total Catholic population, who are marginal to the church. Church leaders desirous of reaching out to them face a daunting challenge. These Catholics are even more given to conscience and progressive views of a more open and participatory church. Only a laity that itself is committed to the institutional church and also leans more toward conscience than to obedience can hope for a fruitful dialogue with these dormant Catholics who are disproportionately younger, well-educated, and increasingly balanced between men and women. One of the places where that laity may be found is in the growing number of small Christian communities on college campuses, documented by Lee, D’Antonio et al in their forthcoming book on Small Christian Communities.

At present that movement seems to be growing because of the initiative taken by local campus ministries. The vitality of these programs at places like Yale, Purdue, Loras College, Notre Dame and hundreds of other campuses suggests this is fertile ground for dynamic leadership, and one of the exciting challenges as we move into the 21st century.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999