Monday, November 25, 2013

More on Linda Woodhead's Survey of What British Catholics Actually Believe: The "Big Con" of Magisterial Teaching about Sexual Morality

Prof. Linda Woodhead

At Religion Dispatches, Linda Woodhead reprises the summary of her recent research findings regarding what British Catholics actually believe (as opposed to what they're told to believe) that I discussed last week. She frames her presentation of her findings by noting that the questionnaire the Vatican is circulating, which asks for lay input prior to the synod on the family, is unlikely to obtain a clear picture of what lay Catholics believe, because its methodology is so cumbersome that it will elicit "hydra-headed" replies that aren't susceptible to easy interpretation.

By contrast, her scientific survey of British Catholics on the same issues on which the Vatican questionnaire focuses offers the first reliable profile of what Catholics in England, Scotland, and Wales actually believe about these issues. I discussed Woodhead's findings in my previous posting about her work. To refresh your memory, here's a thumbnail sketch drawn from the Religion Dispatches article:

• only 9% of self-identified Catholics think that the use of contraceptives warrants guilt; the percentage rises to 12% among churchgoers 
• almost 90% of British Catholics agree that an unmarried couple with children is a family  
• two-thirds say that a same-sex couple with children is a family 
• British Catholics are in favor of permitting same-sex marriage by a margin of 3% 
• only a third of British Catholics approve of the Church’s policies on women 
• only 19% of British Catholics support a ban on abortion 
• over half of British Catholics under 50 say that "same-sex marriage is right," compared with 16% of over-60s 
• support for a ban on abortion has fallen to 14% among under-40s compared to a quarter among over-60s 
• only 36% of Catholics say that the Church is a positive force in society 
• just 8% of Catholics say they look to "tradition and teachings of the Church" for guidance as they make decisions and live their lives, 7% to God, 2% to the Bible, 2% to the religious group to which a person belongs 
• zero percent report that they look to religious leaders for guidance as they make decisions and live their lives

As Colleen Baker notes at her Enlightened Catholicism site, vis-a-vis the last finding, 

Zero percent.  Is there any more damning a statement about the irrelevancy of leadership to the people they are supposed [to] lead? 

And as Woodhead concludes, the problem facing Catholic authorities is not that most Western Catholics think church teaching on the preceding issues is too hard, as a recent comment of Archbishop Vincent Nicholls implies: they think it's quite simply wrong. "[T]hey endorse the moral revolution which has advanced the equal treatment of women, children, and LGBT people," but no one talks about the disconnect between how the church's authorities view these moral issues and how the people in the pews do. 

Woodhead writes,

A Catholic friend described the current situation to me as "a big con." The Church knows no one is listening to its sexual strictures, and many clergy don’t even believe they should. But everyone goes on pretending—at least in the West.

In an article at Talk to Action that focuses not on the Vatican questionnaire or Woodhead's findings but on the tea party politicking of outgoing USCCB president Timothy Dolan and the USCCB's associate director of pro-life activities Richard Doerflinger, Frank Cocozzelli offers an interesting proposal for how Pope Francis's "move from a top-down vertical chain of command to a more horizontal Church" may affect some of these moral debates. Frank notes that in all likelihood, the U.S. Catholic bishops will continue for the foreseeable future to assert their unilateral authority to define "the" Catholic position on issues like abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.

And they'll likely continue to be ignored by increasing numbers of Catholic layfolks as they make this assertion. But with the new wild card that Francis seems to be offering as he moves towards the horizontal model of church: the door is now open for lay Catholics to make their own moral voices heard as the teaching of the church, and as a corrective to the bishops' top-down, unilateral formulation of that teaching. 

Frank's hopeful conclusion:

This is an historic opportunity to weaken the culture warrior elements among American Catholic leadership and to open the doors to a more inclusive and far less conservative Church. But for now, the American Church still seems to belong to the likes of Doerflinger and Dolan.

For my part, I very much hope that Frank is correct about this. 

The photo of Prof. Linda Woodhead is from Wikipedia's entry about her, and is available for us though Wikimedia's Creative Commons license.

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