Thursday, November 21, 2013

Recent Surveys on British Catholic Beliefs: "Discrimination Is Always Unjust and Counts More Heavily Than the Preservation of Traditional Marriage Patterns"

For The Tablet, Linda Woodhead, a professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, reports on the findings of three recent well-conducted research surveys designed to ascertain what British (English, Scottish, and Welsh) Catholics actually believe, as opposed to what they're told by church authorities that they must believe in order to identify themselves as faithful Catholics.* These surveys find that the face of Catholicism in the British Isles is rapidly changing. 

Among the findings: half of British Catholics never attend church, except for events like weddings and funerals. And this trend is increasing among younger Catholics. Younger British Catholics also stand out in that they organize their faith around the social teachings of the church instead of magisterial teachings about sexual morality, for instance. Woodhead writes:

When it comes to social justice, younger Catholics are more likely than older ones to be broadly in line with Catholic Social Teaching. As to politics, they are more ­centre-left than the general population, and noticeably more so than Anglicans. Although people’s voting intention fluctuates, the Catholics we sampled in June 2013 favoured Labour more strongly than the general population. 

And this shift in allocation of emphasis--from magisterial teaching about sexual morality to the social teachings of the church--yields the following, as younger British Catholics address the issue of same-sex marriage:

This concern with social justice and equality helps to explain why younger Catholics are also less obedient to official church teaching on issues of personal morality. In relation to same-sex marriage, for example, four-fifths invoke the principle of equality to explain why they disagree with the Church about its permissibility. As detailed last week, Catholics are now in favour of allowing same-sex ­marriage by a small margin, and the margin increases with every generation – though churchgoers are less favourable than non-churchgoers.  

Or as an editorial of The Tablet commenting on the three surveys on which Woodhead is also commenting puts the same point, 

Catholics still apply moral judgements to the issues they face, with social justice regularly trumping more "official" Catholic attitudes on such issues as gay marriage. Younger Catholics – whether weekly Mass attenders or not – particularly take the view that discrimination is always unjust and counts more heavily than the preservation of traditional marriage patterns. Similarly, respect for individual choice counts more heavily than official teaching when considering abortion or voluntary euthanasia. 

Does this mean, then, that younger British Catholics who infrequently (or never) attend Mass and who reject magisterial teaching about issues like homosexuality are no longer Catholic? That they've given up the Catholic church and have no right to identify themselves as Catholic? In Woodhead's assessment, that's not the case. Here's what she concludes about this point,

Overall then, British Catholics have moved further from a Vatican-approved model of a faithful Catholic with every generation. This does not mean that most have become secular, atheistic, or even non-Catholic – it means that they have become Catholic in a different way. They are much less likely to go to church every week and to think of themselves as "religious". They are likely to support the Church’s social teachings, but are increasingly unlikely to support its natural-law-based teachings about sex, gender and the traditional family. 

Just as the editorial linked above also concludes:

What stands out from these findings is not an absence of moral values, but of values – such as respect for individual conscience that in other contexts Catholics have been taught to admire – being differently applied. There is a willingness to play down the official church line on sexual or "life" issues. The notion of a hierarchical Church with unique access to the truth through its Magisterium seems to be dying out.  

As I read Woodhead's analysis, it occurs to me that her approach to the research findings with which she's dealing is significantly different from the way in which many U.S. Catholics approach similar findings of empirical surveys. As she comments about the shift in how younger British Catholics view same-sex marriage, Woodhead stresses the following: "In relation to same-sex marriage, for example, four-fifths invoke the principle of equality to explain why they disagree with the Church about its permissibility."

Woodhead is talking about conscientious moral judgments being reached by Catholic people whose consciences are informed by what the church has taught them. She's talking about how many Catholic people--and, increasingly, younger Catholics--weigh what the magisterium says to them about sexual morality against what the magisterium says to them about human rights, concern for those on the margins, and the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God.

As she notes, when many Catholics (and younger ones, increasingly) weigh Catholic magisterial teaching about sexual morality against Catholic magisterial teaching about social justice, the latter teaching weighs more heavily in their moral scales, and they arrive at a judgment of conscience that they have a moral obligation to support same-sex marriage. On grounds of equality and justice. On grounds of concern for those on the margins. To safeguard human rights.

Or, as The Tablet's editorial commenting on this same point puts it: "Younger Catholics – whether weekly Mass attenders or not – particularly take the view that discrimination is always unjust and counts more heavily than the preservation of traditional marriage patterns." Hence Woodhead's conclusion that younger Catholics arriving at these moral conclusions on grounds of conscience have not become atheists, secularists, or non-Catholics: "[I]t means they have become Catholic in a different way."

To return to my point about how Woodhead's conclusions seem to me to differ from the conclusions many American Catholics reach in the face of similar evidence (since the phenomenon she's describing and the shift in how younger Catholics engage the church is also in strong evidence among younger U.S. Catholics): American Catholicism is now so significantly polarized--and this due to the direct intent of the U.S. bishops, and due to their direct pastoral leadership--that American Catholics reaching the same moral conclusions that many younger British Catholics are reaching are explicitly told that they've departed from the Catholic faith.

They're no longer Catholic. Catholicism is a package deal. One either accepts the entire package--the magisterial condemnation of homosexuality along with teachings about social justice--or one hits the highway.

This is, loudly and clearly, the message Bishop Paprocki communicated to those gathered in his cathedral yesterday, and to Catholics across the U.S. And to the media and the general public.

Being Catholic requires one to oppose same-sex marriage. It requires one to oppose the human rights of a targeted minority group. In effect, adherence to magisterial teaching about sexual morality cancels out adherence to magisterial teaching about social justice. The scales contain only one teaching--the one about sexual morality. And it outweighs any other Catholic teaching imaginable with a gravitas and ponderousness on which the very definition of Catholicism depends.

For many of us in the American Catholic church, particularly those of us who are the object of this draconian "pastoral" advice, the upshot is that we simply distance ourselves from Catholic identity--because the leaders of our church and many of our loudest voices tell us that we must do this. We distance ourselves as well because what's central to our faith in Jesus Christ as Catholic disciples of Jesus is love, justice, and mercy. We have been effectively shoved to the margins by our own pastoral leaders, and those pastoral leaders and their epigones--the people Fred Clark calls, in the evangelical world, the tribal gatekeepers--clearly intend to keep us on the margins to which they've relegated us.

And we cannot find that message about love, justice, and mercy--there is no path leading to it--in the behavior of Bishop Paprocki. Or of Cardinal George. Or of Cardinal Dolan. Or of most of our bishops across the U.S. Or of their powerful right-wing allies in the Knights of Columbus, the National Organization for Marriage, or the Republican party.

As a result, for many of us who were formerly Catholic in the U.S., and whose consciences were strongly informed by Catholic social teaching and the stress on love, justice, and mercy as the heart of Christian discipleship as set forth in the gospels, the only way to live any semblance of our faith now is by sojourning in the desert places to which we've been relegated by the pastoral leaders of our church. Along with many other people of faith placed in the same places by their faith communities (a big note of thanks to Ruth Krall for her powerful commentary on this point here lately in comment threads).

Somehow, the moderation of the British approach to these matters seems preferable. It seems significantly more catholic both in its respect for informed conscience and in its intent to acknowledge and include those who exercise their Catholic faith while arriving at various judgments of conscience, some of which may differ from our own. It is altogether more soundly rooted in Catholic tradition than is the politicized, culture-war version of Catholicism at which we've arrived in the U.S. under the leadership of our current bishops--with the tacit and sometimes overt support of many "liberal" Catholic tribal gatekeepers.

The stunt Paprocki pulled yesterday makes none of this any better, does it?

*Later in the day: my sincere apologies to readers. Instead of providing the link to Linda Woodhead's article in The Tablet, I somehow managed to provide a link to the Tablet editorial to which I refer later in the posting above. I've now fixed the problem. Thanks to Chris Morley for helping me discover this mistake.

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