By Frank Wessling
We American Catholics today are a comfortable bunch, for the most part; perhaps too comfortable and conforming.
A national survey commissioned by the National Catholic Reporter newspaper found that our median family income is a few dollars over $50,000, right at the average for all American families. And slightly more than 13 percent of us have annual incomes over $100,000. Our immigrant ancestors, struggling to build the Church in this country, would be astounded.
These numbers are notable changes from 1987, when NCR first did a large national survey. This latest one, released late last month, is the fifth in a series tracking both the persistence and the change in U.S. Catholic demographics, attitudes and practices.
Twenty-five years ago we were less affluent but still taking a firm place in the American middle class. We continued to climb the income ladder and become more like our neighbors. And we seem to be affected now like everyone else by the economic jolts and uncertainty of recent years. We hold our money more tightly these days.
Since 2005, the last previous survey by NCR, we are less willing to see an obligation to help the poor. Six years ago, only a minority of us — 44 percent — said you could be a good Catholic without giving to the poor. This year, 60 percent of us want to believe that.
Another survey question also found a big drop in our sense of obligation beyond family. In 2005, 71 percent of us said it was important to give time or money to our parish. Now that figure is 58 percent.
It’s not clear how much of those changes are due to the economic recession that began in 2008 and how much is a shift in attitude away from an older Catholic communitarian ethos when corporate identity and a sense of religious obedience held a stronger grip on us. More of the latter, a drift toward individualism, is suggested by trends in the survey’s questions on sensitive sex and marriage issues.
A majority of us now say the individual should be the one to determine right and wrong about homosexuality, abortion and sex apart from marriage – even if our judgment is against official Church teaching. We have long held that view regarding contraception. A near majority — 47 percent — is reaching the same conclusion about divorce and remarriage, as well. That figure is up from 42 percent six years ago.
In one way, American Catholics could be gaining confidence in our ability to make good, conscientious judgments: to trust that the Holy Spirit works in us. The Church has always taught that personal conscience is the final judge of behavior. But this is probably far from the whole story. It’s more likely that we are simply asserting the “right” to make our own decisions, as good Americans are supposed to do.
Only a minority — and a diminishing minority — of us have any Catholic schooling. For the most part we don’t know the rich story of our faith. Only a very small minority give close attention to the way that faith is taught in pronouncements by Church authorities. And only tiny minorities study and reflect on the reasoning and the values that shape Church teaching on moral issues. As a result, it is unlikely that many of us will have a truly informed Catholic conscience.
Despite our general ignorance and our arm’s length regard for authority, we continue wanting a warm experience of faith in our local parish communities. If the warmth is missing, we at least stay connected in hope. We like our own pastor and bishop better than we like priests and bishops in general.
Now, if we can ever get out of this economic trough that keeps us worried, we could get back to hearing the Gospel whole, including its preferential option for the poor, and being the compassionate, charitable folks most of us want to be.