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Special Report

Parish Catholics: It makes a difference


Paul Wilkes, in his book 7 Secrets of Successful Catholics, reflects on the place of the parish in contemporary society. In the parish there continues to be a “common language and folklore, a centeredness. Indeed, Catholic is still spoken here.” Parishes are places where people come “to hear the family stories of their ancestors. ... The ancient stories are made new in our day, in the circumstances of our lives. The church cycle of readings intersects with our life cycles, beaming distant, true light into our darkest corners.”

National polls have shown that about 68 percent of all Americans say they are members of a church or synagogue. In the book The Search for Common Ground, Davidson and his colleagues found that two-thirds of Catholics were registered parishioners. They were more likely than non-parishioners to support the institutional church and its teachings.

Our findings not only support these earlier studies, but also show that registered members of a Catholic parish tend to be more committed to the institutional church than are non-parishioners, even while they distance themselves from some of its teachings and practices. Before we summarize the differences between parishioners and non-parishioners’ beliefs, attitudes and behavior, let us compare the demographic characteristics of the two groups.

Table 7 shows some dramatic differences between parish and non-parish Catholics. Parish members are more likely to be women than men, more likely to be married and less likely to be divorced, much more likely to have a spouse who is Catholic, and more than twice as likely to be in a marriage approved by the church. Among older Catholics (ages 55+), parishioners outnumber non-parishioners by almost two to one. Almost half of non-parishioners are in the 18- to 34-year age category (compared with 31 percent of the parish members). Parishioners have more Catholic school education and slightly higher incomes on average. Given the demographic differences, we may expect significant differences in the ways parish and non-parish Catholics view their church.

With regard to commitment to the Catholic church, the differences are dramatic.

Mass attendance: 50 percent of registered parish members said they attended Mass at least weekly, while only 10 percent of the non-parish Catholics did so. At the other end, only 15 percent of parish Catholics said they seldom or never attended Mass, while 56 percent of the non-parish Catholics said they seldom or never attend Mass.

On the possibility of their leaving the Catholic church: Among parish-registered Catholics, 68 percent said they would never leave the church (points 1 and 2 on the seven-point scale). Only 33 percent of the non-parish Catholics gave that response. On the other end, only 7 percent of parish Catholics said they might leave (points 6 and 7), while 19 percent of the non-parish Catholics gave that response.

On the importance of the church to them personally: 53 percent of parish Catholics said the church was one of the most important influences on their lives, a response given by only 24 percent of non-parish Catholics. At the other end, only 5 percent of parish Catholics said the church was not important to them, while 21 percent of non-parish Catholics gave that response.

The data do not tell us whether parish membership is the source of the high level of commitment, or whether Catholics joined a parish because they were already highly committed and sought a parish to help them retain that commitment. Probably there is a reciprocal effect.

As we expected, parish Catholics identified more closely with core elements of the Catholic faith (see Hoge article): They were much more likely to stress the importance of the sacraments, of Mary as mother of God, the spirit of community among Catholics, and the Vatican’s teaching authority. However, as regards the latter, it is also significant that barely half of parish Catholics (49 percent) cited the Vatican’s teaching authority as very important to them; that was 22 percentage points lower than the support they gave to any other response.

Parish identity correlated strongly with the sense of being Catholic that parish members expressed and with their desire to have the younger generation grow up Catholic, attitudes not shared by non-parish members.

As regards the question of the proper locus of moral authority (see Table 7) on none of the five items tested did more than 29 percent of parish Catholics say they thought moral authority should rest with church leaders alone. In every instance they chose the individual more often than either of the other two responses. Non-parish members were even less likely to choose church leaders.

Table 7 also shows that half of parish Catholics agreed that “church leaders were out of touch”; with regard to support for women priests, among parish Catholics, the figure was 56 percent, while for non-parish Catholics it was 80 percent.

Responses on the question whether you could be a good Catholic without accepting certain teachings were generally in conformity with those we have already reported elsewhere: A majority of parish Catholics also dissented from Rome on the matter of abortion. At the same time, they overwhelmingly supported the response that you could not be a good Catholic without believing in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (71 percent), or in the Resurrection (83 percent).

Strong majorities of parish Catholics said they should have the right to participate in such church matters as deciding how parish income is spent (83 percent), selecting priests for parishes (68 percent), and even deciding on whether women should be ordained (58 percent). The latter figure is significant in light of all the attention given to women’s ordination since the Vatican declared the matter a closed issue, not open to further discussion. Only on the question of whether it would be a good thing if married women were able to be ordained did the percentage in support among parish Catholics fall below 50 percent.

In summary, Catholics who were registered parish members were clearly more committed to the institutional church and somewhat more supportive of its teachings, but they also reflected the move toward personal autonomy and conscience in matters of personal morality. And as we have seen in the trend data so far, they also expressed desire for a more active participation in church decision-making. The recently completed study of small Christian communities in the Catholic church found that about one in 20 Catholics have participated in parish Renew programs and that currently about one in 60 are active in one or another small faith community, the overwhelming majority of which are connected to the parish. While these Catholics also gave majority support to conscience over obedience to papal teachings, they have high Mass attendance rates and high rates of social justice activity.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999