In one corner, we have the U.S. Catholic bishops, claiming to speak to and for their flock through such things as the Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voting guide with its stress on the abortion issue above and beyond all other social teachings of the Church, and the formation of a new Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, purporting to defend Catholics against such "threats" to religious liberty as contraceptive equity in health insurance coverage and the growing trend towards civil same sex marriage.
In the other corner, you have a Catholic laity that prefers to think for itself, at least according to a survey released this month by the National Catholic Reporter, and whose priorities are not those of their bishops. Fewer than half of those surveyed view opposition to abortion (40%), same sex marriage (35%) or the death penalty (29%) as being important to their Catholic identity. On the other hand, 67% believe that helping the poor is important.
On "personal" morality issues in particular, Catholics in this survey believe the individual rather than church leaders should have the final say about what is right or wrong and this percentage has grown steadily since NCR first began its survey in 1987. Today, this is who Catholics believe should have the final say on the following issues:
Divorce and remarriage
Church leaders: 20%
Church leaders: 19%
Sex outside of marriage
Church leaders: 16%
Church leaders: 16%
Church leaders: 10%
Between a quarter and a third of those surveyed (depending on the issue) are willing to accept joint authority on these matters.
Even among those classified by the survey as highly committed Catholics, 60% believe that you can be a good Catholic without obeying the Church's teaching on birth control and 48% say you don't need to be married in the Church to be a good Catholic.
A different way of being Church
Nor are U.S. Catholics necessarily attached to the current hierarchical and patriarchal way of organizing the Church. Only 21% thought that celibacy for priests was important and 60% support the ordination of women priests. Less than a third thought the Vatican's teaching authority was important. Even among those who described themselves as highly committed Catholics, the Vatican's teaching authority has declined sharply in significance in recent years -- from 71% in 2005 down to 57% in 2011.
Catholics are no longer buying into the importance of "fulfilling the Sunday obligation." Even among highly committed Catholics, 48% believe you can be a good Catholic without attending Mass each week -- a good thing since weekly Mass attendance continues to decline from 44% in 1987 to 31% in 2011, and 47% of Catholics attend Mass less than once a month. We would expect this decline to accelerate once the new Roman Missal is implemented next month. If many are already unmotivated to participate in a liturgy that they find routine and remote to their daily lives, how many will want the added dimension of new, arcane language that must be memorized?
Most Catholics still believe that their parish priests are doing a good job but, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, the laity are finding themselves increasingly shut out and most of those surveyed said they believe priests don't expect laypeople to be leaders. At the same time, they want to have a voice and 75-80% of them think they should have a say in such matters as how parish income is spent and who their priests will be.
As the Church time after time reiterates the value of a celibate clerical caste and punishes anyone who might think differently, and uses such outdated tactics as banning girls from being servers to keep the altar an all-male preserve, the Catholics in this survey are already looking towards a post-clerical future. While it's still very important for them to keep parishes open whenever possible and to have priests available to visit the sick and minister last rites to the dying, 76% would find it acceptable to have a layperson or deacon run the parish with visiting priests coming in to provide the sacraments. A similar number would accept reducing the number of weekend Masses (logical, since regular Mass attendance is not a major value), and 66% would accept the occasional Communion service instead of Mass.
In other words, laypeople have already come to terms with the priest shortage and are willing to explore different ways of being Church while the hierarchy continues to try to hold on to the old model and hopes to stimulate vocations through glitzy web sites and other high tech tools to put a new "look" on the same tired, old personnel system while failing to effectively address the underlying reasons for the decline in vocations, much less looking at how to function in a post-clerical future.
A time for dialogue
Going back to the Church's presence in the political arena, Catholics are largely with their bishops on broader social issues such as immigration reform, government funds for the poor, and reducing spending on nuclear weapons, but only about half the faithful agree with their bishops on opposing health care reform legislation and same sex marriage. To sum it up: Catholics don't want their bishops in their bedrooms or in their doctor's offices, whether directly through Church directives or indirectly through lobbying.
It seems to me that by continuing to adopt a paternalistic, "father knows best" approach, the bishops will further alienate the Catholic laity and undermine their own spiritual and political authority. After all, how can you hope to influence a secular and religiously diverse country when you cannot even persuade your own flock? A more effective approach would be to use these surveys to bring the Church's political priorities into sync with those that enjoy widespread agreement and support from lay Catholics and put issues such as contraceptive equity and same sex marriage on the back burner. Then the bishops would have a better chance of mobilizing the Catholic faithful and gaining real political clout.
Second, these surveys are a clear indication that it's time for the nation's bishops to start talking to the faithful about how we, together, can reshape the institutional Church to meet the needs of Catholics in light of what, for the foreseeable future, is going to be an ongoing decline in membership, personnel, and financial resources. It is customary for businesses to use focus groups and other tools to get input from their clients and use the results to improve their products to meet their clients' expectations and keep their loyalty. This is how Americans think, subconsciously, and while some may resent the suggestion that similar standards should be applied to a religious institution that traces its roots back to Jesus Christ, there's no reason such an approach couldn't work for the Catholic Church without sacrificing the basic "product". It's time for "We Are Church" to become more than just a slogan.