National Catholic Register


Poll Reveals Active Catholics Are ‘Highly Committed’

BY David Finnigan

December 29, 1996-January 4, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/29/96 at 1:00 PM


WHILE THE MEDIA focuses on women's ordination, a married priesthood, sexual politics and the rifts these issues cause between the Left and the Right in the Church, most American Catholics—at least those regularly found in the pews—are more concerned with making sense of their faith in their daily lives, according to a book-length survey due out next spring by a Purdue University sociologist.

“If you look at the people who are in the pews, you will see a group of rather highly-committed people who are trying to make sense of their faith, day by day, in their daily lives,” said James Davidson, the sociology professor and chief author of the Catholic Pluralism Project, a three-year study and data collection based on telephone interviews with 1,058 U.S. Catholics.

The study, tentatively titled Catholic Faith and Morals: Unity and Diversity in Today's Church, is scheduled to be published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. Central to the survey was a deliberate attempt to focus not on America's 60 million Catholics as a whole, but on the smaller population of active faithful registered in—and volunteering at—their parishes. Most opinion polls, which are specifically commissioned by activist groups seeking data to lobby Church officials, survey Catholics as a whole. But the majority of Americans who call themselves Catholic are not affiliated with a parish.

“Most national surveys combine those two groups and talk about American Catholics in general,” Davidson said. “By including people who are not actively participating in the Church, they give an image of Catholics as being far more in disagreement with the teachings of the Church than what active Catholics experience in their daily parish life.”

Funded in part by the Lilly Endowment, the Davidson survey found that more than 60 percent of Catholics questioned say the Church should place more emphasis on traditional teachings; that there is something special and unique to Catholicism; that they cannot imagine themselves being anything other than Catholic; that helping those in need is important to their faith; that they are not offended by the Church using terms like “men” and “brothers” to describe all of humanity. Eighty-nine percent said the Church has given them “a solid moral foundation.”

On issues like Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex and birth control, Davidson said he found Catholics in the pews “far more in compliance [with official Church teaching] than non-active Catholics.”

But most media attention and mainstream surveys focus on inactive Catholics' dissent. “The left is Call to Action, the right is Mother Angelica,” said Davidson, who attends St. Thomas Aquinas Church in West Lafayette, lnd. “By and large these are highly informed, highly motivated groups, representing extreme points of view. And statistically they represent a rather small percentage of all Catholics. Most Catholics tend to fall somewhere in the middle.”

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of the Los Angeles archdiocese agrees. “I do think that what gets the news, which is either the far left or the far right, represents a very small minority of Catholics. But both sides get a disproportionate amount of the news,” he said. “The vast majority of Catholics—I think people we see every day—primarily are concerned with what goes on in their own families, and their own parishes.”

That would include Rebecca Duberow. At 48, she is a Salt Lake City mother of three, married for 25 years, selling real estate, and teaching biology part-time at the city's only Catholic high school. She said Church strength can be found, for example, in its commitment to life in all forms. Active in a large city parish, she said a prior stint as a religion teacher made her ask herself “what I truly believed and what I could teach. And I think the older I get and the more I learn about the Church, the more I appreciate it.”

Duberow's responses are typical of the point of view that surfaced among Catholics interviewed by Davidson and his team of 18 lay people and religious. As Davidson's team was working last spring, Father Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, gave a talk at the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Religious Education Congress, which attracts 20,000 catechists each year. In his lecture, Father Rausch's comments paralleled the survey findings being discovered at Purdue. “The most important way to change the Church is to be involved in the life of the Church,” he said. “The most important thing is to continue to work for the life of the Church.”

Because of the upcoming book's target market of diocesan and parish leaders, its focus is clearly on those in the pews. “We're looking at parishioners. Most of the national studies, if they ask ‘Are you a Catholic?’ people say yes or no,” said Kathleen Weigert, who worked on the survey and is an associate director for academic affairs and research at the Notre Dame University's Center for Social Concerns. “But the surveys never ask ‘What does being Catholic mean? Are you, for example, affiliated with a parish?’”

The Purdue data found that based on ethnic groupings, European-American Catholics of Italian, French and Polish heritage scored higher on the survey's traditional beliefs and practice index than Irish-American and African-American Catholics. The data showed that Hispanic Catholics are slightly more traditional than French and Italian heritage Catholics. Asian-American Catholics were the most traditional of all, according to index figures.

Among generations, the survey found that those who went to Catholics schools in the 50s and 60s and then came of age after Vatican II are less institutional than older Catholics. The post-Vatican II generation are even less institutional in outlook—but more spiritual—with the survey finding them less inclined to describe the Church as an essential component of their faith. “I am more spiritual walking in the woods than I am walking down the main aisle of [a] church,” one participant said.

The areas of greatest unity and consensus among Catholics concern the core doctrines of Catholicism, Davidson said. The Incarnation, the Resurrection, Mary as the Mother of God, and the Nicene Creed “are areas where Catholics are in greatest agreement,” he said. “You would-n't know that by listening to the speeches at Call to Action or by the Religious Right. That's where the unity is. But it tends to go unnoticed.”

“The Pope and the people are not quarreling about the Incarnation,” he said. “Once you have that kind of consensus, then I think that allows people of good faith to quarrel and argue vehemently over other issues and to view those disagreements as family problems.”

David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles.