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Special Report

Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic attitudes, beliefs, behavior


Trends in Catholic attitudes show a gradual movement toward more personal responsibility and at the same time toward a desire for more lay participation in decision-making within the institutional church. The areas of personal responsibility seem focused primarily on matters of sexuality and marriage, while the laity’s desire for more active participation in decisions involving church life extend well beyond matters of sexuality and marriage.

The first major trends are found in the way Catholics as a whole have come to think about the locus of moral authority, and on democratic decision-making in the Catholic church. We then take a closer look at these trends when we control for frequency of Mass attendance, the strongest single predictor of acceptance of church teachings.

Table 3 compares the responses of Catholics across the three time periods to the question of where they think the locus of moral authority should rest. The trend is clearly toward declining support for church leaders (pope and bishops) as the locus of moral authority in helping people decide what is morally right or wrong on five issues dealing with marriage and sexuality. The outspokenness of church leaders on these issues during the past 12 years has not stopped the trend. Support for the institutional church’s position has declined even on abortion and on non-marital sex. Less than one in four Catholics thinks church leaders alone should have the final say in these matters.

The trend is increasingly toward seeing the individual as having the final say on these moral issues. On two of the issues (remarrying without an annulment and active homosexuality) there has been a significant movement toward the individual over 12 years. On the other issues, support remains steady at close to 50 percent. Overall, support for the individual as the locus of moral authority now ranges between 45 percent and 61 percent, which is more than double the support given to church leaders.

The third option given respondents on this question was that church leaders should work together with the laity to develop these moral teachings. It received more support from the laity than did church leaders alone on every one of the five items. Still, the trend toward personal autonomy (individuals deciding for themselves) and away from either “Church Leaders” or “Both” has grown on every one of the five items during these 12 years.

The trend is toward more democratic decision-making at all three levels of the church is clear. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for such participation is found at the parish level with two out of three Catholics favoring more democracy. It is at this level that numerous parishes have moved to implement the reforms of Vatican II that encourage such participation. NCR has featured some of these parishes over the course of the past several years.

Six out of 10 Catholics also favor more participation at the diocesan level, which reflects a growing pattern of diocesan participation. According to Murnion and DeLambo (New Parish Ministries, 1999), more than 30,000 laity now work in parish and diocesan offices at almost all administrative levels.

The Second Vatican Council promised much more collegiality at least between the pope and the bishops than has so far been realized. While little progress has been made in participatory decision-making at the level of the Vatican, a majority of American Catholics (55 percent) continue to favor such participation. The Papal Birth Control Commission, with its mix of laity, theologians, bishops, scientists and philosophers, provided the laity who remember the 1960s an example of a mechanism for participatory decision-making that could become a model for the church.

More recently, the 1980s saw the publication of two major documents sponsored by the U.S. bishops, the Peace Pastoral (1983) and the Pastoral on the Economy (1986). Both documents received extensive input from laity (right, center and left), and were well received by the broader public. In the 1990s, other documents on family life have also received varying degrees of input from lay groups and organizations. So precedents have been set, and there is sufficient evidence that the laity will respond if invited.

Table 4 shows the trend in support of more lay participation in church life primarily at the local level. There has been little movement in the numbers since 1987 regarding the laity’s right to participate in deciding on how parish income should be spent. But that is because there has been a broad consensus in support from the very first survey. It is hard to imagine the level of support moving above 82 percent. News stories tell us that more and more parishes do now include parish councils with significant input into parish finances.

More significant in Table 4 is the great increase in support of the laity’s right to participate in “Selecting priests for their parish,” and in “Deciding whether women should be ordained to the priesthood.” In both cases, the dramatic increases that were reported in 1993 were sustained in the 1999 survey. Again, these trends come at a time when church leaders continue to insist that such matters are either their own prerogative (selecting priests for parishes), or beyond their ability to discuss (the ordination of women). The desire for lay input is especially noteworthy given the statements from Rome declaring the matter closed.

Having observed the trends toward autonomy and democratic decision-making among the Catholic laity in general, we turn now to look at how level of commitment to the church, in this case Mass attendance, affects these attitudes. Since the level of Mass attendance was found to have little impact on the laity’s desire for more participation in church affairs, I confine my focus to the question on the locus of moral authority on the matters we examined in Table 3.

Table 5 gives the results. Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more are relatively more likely to support church leaders as the locus of moral authority. For example, regarding contraceptive birth control, support for church leaders increases from 12 percent, 14 percent and 11 percent (see Table 3) to 20 percent, 20 percent and 21 percent respectively. Surprisingly, however, support for church leaders on the question of abortion, which was 12 percent higher for weekly Mass attenders, still declined from 41 percent to 33 percent between 1987 and 1999. Overall, weekly Mass attenders were on the average 12 percentage points higher in their support of church leaders. The fact that their overall support for church leaders actually declined in these 12 years might be attributed in part to the 7 percent decline in weekly Mass attendance. In sum, while the church’s most committed Catholics are more supportive of church leaders than are Catholics as a whole, their support has fallen to under 40 percent on every one of these five items.

It could be said that Catholics are simply becoming more and more rebellious, deviant and sinful. It is more likely, however, that Catholics are simply being Catholic, that is, combining faith and reason to confront real life issues such as a divorce and remarriage in the family, and how to raise and love a certain number of children and so on. Michele Dillon in her new book Catholic Identity (1999) argues that the Catholic tradition throughout history has been a struggle between faith, reason and the claimed authority of the Vatican.

As Catholics become more educated, in public schools as well as in Catholic schools, they will continue to look to reason, science and faith to guide them in the development of their consciences. In the process of doing so, they may be expected to take the teachings of church leaders into account, but these teachings are not the only source of guidance for them. Clearly, some Catholics will continue to rely on their faith and in the teachings of the hierarchy, while others will rely on this mixture that has led to the ever-growing pluralism. Whether one sees this pluralism as a sign of a vibrant church or a church in disarray may depend on one’s view of church as either the people of God, or as the institutional church.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999