The Catholic Weakness

Last week I wrote about one piece of data that jumped out from the Austin Institute’s fascinating new study, Relationships in America: the Mormon advantage in transmitting traditional Christian practice and views on many things, from life after death to sex and marriage.

Judging from the comments, many people have a hard time separating a sociological analysis from a theological one. Even many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understandably believe that their particular strain of theology is the key to their relative success. Maybe so. Certainly there is an obvious reciprocal relationship between orthopraxy and orthodoxy (right action and right belief).

But until quite recently, historically speaking, theologically diverse Christian denominations successfully transmitted a marriage culture to their next generations. And other groups in America, with quite different theological views than those of Mormons (for example Modern Orthodox Jews) are also relatively successful at sustaining a distinctive child-rich marriage culture. (The Austin Institute study did not break down Jews into subcategories because the sample size was not large enough to do so.)

Speaking as a Roman Catholic and as an intellectual observer, I want this week to point to another large and important insight that leaps out from the new study data: the relative Catholic weakness. In some sense this is not, of course, news. New York is merging and shutting down parishes to cope with population losses. Progressives are blaming “culture warrior” Cardinal George for a similar loss in the Catholic population of Chicago. Without an influx of Latino immigrants, the shrinking of the Catholic Church in America would be even starker.

The Catholic Church, unlike many other Christian communities, faced a postmodern sexual revolution while in the middle of absorbing massive new changes in church practices, as well as what a fair observer would call equally large disruption in authority structures, after Vatican II. Many Catholic institutions began to lose their distinctively Catholic identity markers: Nuns threw off their habits; Catholic colleges aspired to compete with and resemble their increasingly progressive secular counterparts; partnered gay men became Catholic-school teachers and principals. Cafeteria Catholicism was born and it flourished.

For the Relationships in America study, the Austin Institute interviewed a nationally representative sample of 15,783 people between the ages of 18 and 60; the study separates Catholics by whether they consider themselves “traditional,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or some other kind of Catholic. It also looks at each subgroup’s views and practices by church attendance.

The first thing that leaps out is how divided the Catholic Church in America is, two generations after Vatican II. Traditional Catholic are 5.7 percent of the population; liberal Catholics are slightly more numerous, at 5.8 percent; the plurality of Catholics — 7.5 percent of Americans —  dub themselves “moderate,” while 3.2 percent of Americans choose the label “other” Catholics. The wording of the question may not perfectly map orthodoxy (“traditionalist” Catholics in my world are those who support the Latin Mass, for example, which many perfectly orthodox Catholics are not especially interested in attending).

But the labels are clearly capturing something real, because by every measure in this study (and unsurprisingly), traditional Catholics are more supportive of Catholic teaching and practice than are liberal Catholics, with moderate Catholics falling in between and “other” Catholics generally less actively involved than liberal Catholics. Traditional Catholics are three times as likely as liberal Catholics to attend mass in a given week, for instance (58 percent to 21 percent). They are ten percentage points more likely to say they believe in one of the most basic Christian teachings: life after death (85 percent to 75 percent). Each week in Mass, Catholics like me recite the Creed, which includes our faith in the “resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.” Traditional Catholics are twice as likely as liberal Catholics to say they believe in the resurrection of the body (51 percent to 24 percent). Thirty-five percent of liberal Catholic men consumed porn in the last week, compared with 21 percent of traditional Catholic men, to pick just one measure of self-reported behavior.

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