Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1996
Volume 7, Number 2

Catholic Pluralism Is Subject of One Creighton Study

Charles L. Harper
Associate Professor of Sociology

The Catholic Church (as a "top down," formal organization) has long coexisted with a bewildering pluralism of religious orientations, beliefs, and sociopolitical attitudes--including those that directly relate to church teachings. This is not a new observation.

Part of that pluralism of religious views derives from a universal church and doctrine that interacts with the diversity of national cultures, ethnic communities, and social class settings in which Catholics live. One scholar, for example, argues that the willingness of American Catholics to disagree, redefine, or ignore aspects of church teachings illustrates the interaction between Catholicism and a secular culture that emphasizes self-actualization, individualism, and democracy.1 Others have emphasized that the diversity of Catholic views derives from the liberalizing effects of the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. They generally maintain that two Catholic religious subcultures have emerged (particularly in Europe and North America): one traditional and the other progressive. Different observers have depicted each with a variety of names; what I call progressive has also been called modernist, liberal, communal, or selective. It has been most often found strongly among those who are younger, more educated, and more selective about church teachings--particularly regarding marriage, sexuality, and birth control.2

In 1988 I collected some data that shed light on these issues, working with the Permanent Diaconate programs in the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Des Moines in an evaluation of those programs. We sent questionnaires to representative samples of laity, priests, deacons, and women religious. Questionnaires were sent proportionally to persons in large and small parishes, large and small communities, and to those working in parish and non-parish settings. Laity returns were about 52% female and about 48% male. The return rates were by no means perfect but were adequate by contemporary standards of social science practice. Besides information about permanent deacons we collected data about persons' views of the church, worship, the sacred, and sociopolitical and moral issues. We used an existing research instrument previously used to study religious diversity among French priests in 1987.3 Traditional Catholicism items depicted the Catholic church as a concrete institutional structure in which religious norms for belief are defined by objective social and legal criteria under clerical and hierarchical control. Such beliefs are connected with objective rules about sin, politics, and family affairs. Progressive Catholicism items depicted the Church as an invisible and diverse "community of God" in which there are pervasive religious norms (love, faith, hope) driven by conscience rather than objective rules or hierarchical control, in which clergy-lay status distinctions are minimized and symbolized (rather than made manifest) in ritual and worship. All respondents were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with each traditional and progressive item. A copy of the complete scale is available from the author by request.

In analyzing these data my colleague4 and I addressed three areas of concern:

1. The existence, diversity, and distribution of traditional and progressive attitudes among various Catholic populations.

2. The extent to which there are coherent clusters of data that would indicate subcultural formations.

3. The extent to which these measures predicted opinions about a variety of social and moral issues. Regarding this third question we adopted a (perhaps obvious) hypothesis that traditional religious views would be related to more conservative social and moral views, while "progressive" religious views would be related to more "liberal" social and moral views. That hypothesis may be "obvious" but previous social research reports very loose, variable, or nonexistent connections between religious views and social attitudes and behavior.

Our research is unique because it addresses the same questions simultaneously among various Catholic populations working closely in the same dioceses (laity, priests, deacons, women religious) using the same instrument. Studies that do so are quite rare, as are studies that identify permanent deacons as different from laity and priests.

Research Findings

I summarize our findings in terms of the three research areas noted above.

1. We find a high degree of diversity and pluralism among Catholics about social and moral issues, including some related to Church teachings. There are, for instance, disagreements between our samples about appropriate settings for sexuality, about whether economic justice concerns should limit the ability to accumulate wealth, about whether it is wrong for divorced Catholics to remarry (most did not think so), and about whether it is better if the man is the wage earner and the woman takes care of the home and family life. About the later issue, laity were about evenly split, but priests, deacons, and women religious overwhelmingly rejected the statement.

Evidence suggests a high degree of overlap between the distribution of traditional and progressive religious views: the same persons could score high or low on both traditional and progressive attitudes. To understand this, we combined scores, developing "net difference" scores that measured respondents' positions relative to "purely" traditional or progressive views. We did the same with data from the French Priests, and found that the French Priests strongly preferred progressive Catholicism. That finding sharply contrasts with all American samples, but particularly with American priests, who strongly prefer traditional Catholicism. This difference! suggests dramatic differences between the religious culture among clergy of the two nations. Within American samples, laity and priests showed strong net preferences for traditional Catholicism, while deacons and women religious prefer progressive Catholicism, but not as strongly as did the French priests. Among different samples, religious views of deacons were the most divided and discordant, with net scores about half way between the traditional and progressive ends of our scale on many items.

Turning to conceptually different kinds of religious-view items, all American samples preferred traditional views of The Church as a structure--they preferred to see The Church as an objective bureaucratic organization rather than an invisible "community of God." Similarly all American samples held a traditional view of worship (mass) and the sacraments. But across samples questionnaire items about definition of the sacred, rules and norms exhibited great diversity: Laity are virtually the only ones who believe that sin is a violation of objective rules (deacons, women religious, and priests, particularly French priests, all strongly reject this). On balance, all except women religious believe in objective rules for marriage, politics, family, and economics, with the strongest endorsements from laity and American priests. Responses dealing with religious roles are similarly mixed. All significantly reject the notion of a hierarchical conception of the priesthood with special powers that lay persons lack, but laity are divided and do so only weakly. All accept the notion that all believers have charisma and vocation. Regarding The Church and the political order, all rejected the notion of the church "not involved in politics" because of the separation of the spiritual and temporal. We argue that the dominant American view is of a Church politically engaged in an open and pluralistic sense, rather than the Vatican being the spokesman and broker for all Catholics. Women religious and deacons seem most strongly attached to this view.

2. By statistical analysis (factor analysis) we found evidence of coherent clusters of traditional attitudes but not progressive ones within each American sample. Progressive attitudes exist in each sample, but as unconnected attitudes about different things.

3. We found support for the "obvious" hypothesis--traditional religious views are related to support for conservative social, political, and moral views. But we found the particular pattern of those relationships varied among samples and was neither consistent nor predictable.

In sum, our evidence suggests that American Catholic religious orientations integrate:

(1) the democracy, openness, individualism, and engagement derived from both Vatican II reforms and American secular culture, and

(2) the reassertion of Catholic traditionalism by the Vatican, the hierarchy, and elements of the laity in recent decades.

The reasons for the existence of a coherent subculture of religious traditionalism is not hard to understand: It is consistent with policies and views promoted by the official Church with considerable consistency and resources during the last 40 years. Yet the data also suggests considerable pluralism and diversity. It seems to be a symbiotic mixture of officially promoted traditionalism, residues from the Vatican II reforms, and themes and attitudes that relate to the American cultural environment.

1 William D'Antonio, "Autonomy and Democracy in an Autocratic Organization: The Case of the Roman Catholic Church," Sociology of Religion, 55: 4 (1994): 379-396.

2 See, for instance, Andrew Greeley, The Communal Catholic: A Manifesto (New York: Seabury. 1976); Joseph A. Varacalli, Toward the Establishment of liberal Catholicism in America (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1983); Eugene Kennedy, Tomorrow's Catholics, Yesterday's Church: The Two Cultures of American Catholicism (New York: Harper and Row,1988); and William D. Dinges, "Roman Catholic Traditionalism," in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

3 Pierre Hegy, "The Invisible Catholicism," Sociological Analysis, 48: 2 (1987): 167-76. Hegy did not use the terms traditional and progressive, but his instrument included items that depict them, as I use those terms here.

4 Kevin Leicht, a Creighton graduate of 1981, now a member of the Department of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University.