American Catholicism: Bigger than a blog post

There are probably as many ways to tease out the data from National Catholic Reporter’s latest survey of American Catholics’ attitudes and beliefs as there are, well, American Catholics.

Michelle Dillon, who chairs the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire and serves on the survey team, said at an Oct. 24 news conference to release the findings that the church did not seem to be discussing its long-range future — much less have a plan in place. “Who’s doing the talking?” she asked.

Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and another member of the survey team, expressed concern for the future of American Catholicism — especially for the growing numbers of Hispanic Catholics — without the network of Catholic schools that were in place even one generation ago.

But William V. D’Antonio, a sociologist based at The Catholic University of America, said one prescription may be small Christian communities. “There are small Christian communities at Yale and at Catholic University,” he said. He noted there are some areas of the country where Hispanic Catholics flock to small Christian communities.

Gautier pondered the dwindling number of priests at the news conference. Catholics in the survey were aware, she said, that the number of priests was shrinking, but a clear majority reported that they had not been personally affected by the shortage. “That’s because they’re being stretched thinner and thinner and thinner” with multiparish clergy assignments, Gautier said. With the remaining priests getting older, she added, “something’s got to give.” Gautier also blanched at reports, not part of the NCR survey, that some dioceses are requiring church construction projects to offer seating for 1,300 persons.  “How are people going to know each other in that kind of situation?” she asked aloud.

Still, Gautier marveled at how ethnic Catholics have not only been assimiliated into American society, but within the church itself, moving to suburbs, exurbs and areas of the American South and West that formerly held very few Catholics.

D’Antonio said the 1945-65 era was the period of “American Catholic triumphalism,” as the parish and school networks were arguably at their strongest and Catholics started being accepted into all facets of American life.  This included the election of John Kennedy as the nation’s first Catholic president. “Jack Kennedy’s election meant everything to us,” said D’Antonio, who was part of the pre-Vatican II era of U.S. Catholics, which now account for only about 10 percent of the nation’s Catholic population.

But NCR editor-at-large Tom Roberts said thost post-World War II decades were an anomaly. “Nothing like it ever happened before, and nothing like it is going to happen again,” he said. U.S. Catholics, he added, “have to start thinking about what kind of church they want for the 21st century.”

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