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Special Report

What is most central to being a Catholic?


Today Catholics everywhere are talking about the problem of Catholic identity. “What does it mean to be a Catholic?” “What is distinctive about being a Catholic?” “What is the most important part of being a Catholic?”

Prior to the 1960s nobody worried about these questions, for Catholics in America possessed a distinct identity simply by being who they were and who they were not. Their identity as Catholics was given to them by their surroundings -- what some theorists call “identity from outside.” Catholics carried clear labels that they could not avoid, whether they wished to or not. Only in the 1960s did anti-Catholic sentiment subside in the United States, and then, as Catholics achieved higher levels of education, moved to the suburbs and married non-Catholics at higher and higher rates, the identity from outside fell away. Catholics were no longer obviously something different. Now a new question arose: “Who are we?”

The configuration of Catholic identity was not studied in our 1987 and 1993 surveys. It was a new topic we introduced in 1999. We followed the lead of several other research studies.

The purpose of inquiring into Catholic identity is to describe more precisely this aspect of the actual lived faith of Catholics, which may or may not fit exactly with official teachings. All religious groups have elements of popular religion that develop among the faithful. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed that the sensus fidelium -- the sense of the faithful -- is important.

Anyone investigating Catholic identity soon finds that being a Catholic has many possible facets. The Catholic tradition is old, rich, variegated, and for some, bewildering. There are saints, social reformers, relics, mystics, spiritual virtuosi, devotions, obligations, art forms, institutional rules and hundreds of moral teachings. What are the most central and the most important facets? What most defines what being a Catholic really means?

We asked, “As a Catholic, how important is each of the following to you?” We then read six elements of being a Catholic, rotating the sequence in different interviews, and asked if each was very important, somewhat important or not important at all. Table 1 shows the percentage of respondents saying “very important,” shown in descending order.

Of the six we asked about, sacraments were seen as most important, followed closely by spirituality and personal growth in Catholic life. Catholic emphasis on social justice and helping the poor was ranked third. Lowest of the six was the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican. The low rating of church authority agrees with other recent research on Catholics, which finds a tendency among many laity to make a distinction between Catholic spirituality and Catholic institutional church life. Especially among young Catholics we often hear this distinction. One commonly heard formula says, “I’m a spiritual person but I’m not religious,” referring to the distinction between personal spirituality and participation in the church. Another formula says, “I’m a Catholic, but I don’t always follow what the church says.”

The table also shows attitudes broken down in three levels of education. Catholics with different levels of education differ on only two of the six ratings. On the fourth, concerning Mary, the Mother of God, the most educated Catholics have a lower rating than the others; the difference between the most and least educated groups is 16 percentage points. And on the sixth, concerning the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican, the most educated Catholics have a much lower rating than the others. The three groups vary by 21 percentage points.

Here is an indication of trends in the future. Since educational levels among American Catholics are steadily increasing, we may expect future Catholics to resemble the more educated Catholics today. Probably future Catholics will attach less importance to devotion to Mary and to church authority.

We looked at other breakdowns, searching for more discrete patterns of attitudes, but uncovered little. We found that the most loyal church attenders, compared with non-attenders, had the same rank ordering of the six elements. Also men and women agreed in their rankings, as did Anglos and Latinos.

We got additional information from our series of nine questions in the 1999 survey asking what it takes to be a good Catholic. This is a slightly different approach, yet the results are important. (See Table 2.) We asked if a person can be a good Catholic without doing or believing certain things. Of the nine questions, the respondents treated two in a unique way. They were seen as most important. One said, “without believing that Jesus physically rose from the dead”; only 23 percent said that a person could be a good Catholic without believing this. A second said “without believing that in the Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus”; and only 38 percent said that a person could be a good Catholic without this. We can infer that these two are seen as close to the core of Catholicism.

Let us look at the other end, the items that are least important. In ninth place was “without going to church every Sunday”; 77 percent said this is not necessary to be a good Catholic. In eighth place was “without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control”; 72 percent said that this is not necessary. The rest of the lineup can be seen in Table 2 and Figure 1.

Our conclusion is that the perceived core of Catholicism is the creed and sacraments, in agreement with the survey questions discussed above. The obligation to attend church weekly, and some specific moral teachings, are much more peripheral.

This is not the first survey that asked Catholics to rate various beliefs and practices by importance. There have been at least two others, one by Davidson and his colleagues (see The Search for Common Ground, 1997), and the other by Dinges, Hoge, Johnson and Gonzales (see Commonweal, July 17, 1998).

Davidson and his colleagues asked Catholics about the importance of what the investigators called “pan-Vatican II” beliefs such as the Trinity, Resurrection, Incarnation, the Real Presence and Mary as the Mother of God. These doctrines are embedded in the Nicene Creed and are as much a part of Catholic teachings today as they were prior to the Second Vatican Council. The researchers found that most Catholics, especially registered parishioners, see these beliefs as being very important to them personally. In fact, the researchers concluded that these beliefs are “the single most important basis of Catholic unity [and] the reason why Catholics remain loyal to the church, even when they disagree with it on other matters.”

In the other study, Dinges, Hoge, Johnson and Gonzales asked a random sample of American Catholics 20 to 39 years old to rate 19 different elements as essential or not essential to their vision of the Catholic faith. The survey question was: “How essential is each element to your vision of what the Catholic faith is?” The interviewer then read the first item and continued, “In your opinion is this essential to the faith, important but not essential or not important to the faith today. If you are unaware that this is an element of the Catholic faith, please say so.” Then the other 18 elements were read and rated.

The top five most essential, in order, were: (1) belief that God is present in the sacraments; (2) charitable efforts toward helping the poor; (3) belief that Christ is really present in the Eucharist; (4) devotion to Mary the Mother of God; and (5) belief that God is present in a special way in the poor. The bottom five were: (19) the church’s traditional support of the right of workers to unionize; (18) belief that only men can be priests; (17) teachings that oppose the death penalty; (16) belief that priests must be celibate; and (15) teachings that oppose abortion. Nine other elements were between, including devotions to saints, the necessity of having a pope, having religious orders, having a regular daily prayer life and private confession to a priest. To summarize: The sacraments, devotion to helping the poor, and devotion to Mary are most central and crucial to young Catholics, while specific rules about priesthood and specific teachings about the rights of workers, the death penalty and abortion are the least central.

Our new 1999 survey agrees quite closely with the 1997 survey of young Catholics: In both, the respondents rated the sacraments as highest, followed by efforts toward social justice and devotion to Mary the Mother of God, and both rated specific authoritative church teachings low.

Why are researchers today interested in identifying core and periphery in Catholic life? The topic is important since in a time of social change there is inevitably a sorting-out process in every traditional religion. It is a sociological axiom that social change puts pressure on any religious tradition, be it Catholicism, Judaism or whatever, and this causes the faithful to ask urgent questions about what really is important and what really must be defended and preserved at all cost. When times are changing, not everything from the past can be kept unchanged and in place. Parts of the received faith that aren’t so important may be open to new assessment and maybe to change. Nobody should see this sorting-out process as sinister or threatening. To a portion of the faithful in a religious group it will feel dangerous, but this faction overlooks the spiritual energies that can be created and mobilized in new formulations of the faith that have the power to touch present-day hearts. The sorting-out of core and periphery is not only inevitable; it is also beneficial. Devoted leaders in every religious tradition will begin to articulate what is the kernel and what is the husk in the received tradition.

We see this process underway today, shown most clearly in research on young Catholics. For example, in the 1997 survey, young Catholics said that “the belief that only men can be priests,” (which ranked 18th out of 19) was rated as a peripheral issue, not one essential to the core of Catholicism. In young Catholics’ view it is subject to re-evaluation to assess if it is serving to strengthen the core or not.

Catholic theology includes the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths, which is the same basic idea. The contribution of empirical sociological research is to assess the shape of the Catholic religion as lived by the faithful. Lay attitudes, and especially the attitudes of the most faithful, must be known and appreciated.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999