Polls, Sociology, and Loss of Faith

Attempts by some sociologists to explain why younger Catholics reject Church teaching reveal methodological limits and ideological bias.

The late Father Andrew Greeley, the dean of American Catholic sociologists, was a habitually angry man, at various times angry at the American Catholic theological establishment because his sister failed to get tenure at a Catholic college, angry at the Catholic historical establishment because one of his books was mildly criticized, and (for a time) angry at the University of Chicago for denying him tenure.

Most of all, he was continually angry at the American bishops, and for one fundamental reason—they simply did not embrace his sociological findings as the basis for Church doctrine and policy. They disregarded “what the polls show.”

But the bishops’ willful blindness, as Greeley saw it, is inherent in their teaching office, for the obvious reason that truth is not determined by opinion polls. Whenever that obvious point is made, sociologists respond by saying that they are perfectly aware of it. But it then remains unclear what purpose polls are supposed to serve. During his career Greeley moved from strong affirmation of the Catholic teaching on birth control to a fanatical, single-minded rejection of it, insisting that the Church was irresponsible for not changing its teaching to conform to changing public opinion.

Whose questionable assumptions?

Recently a group of liberal sociologists, led by William Antonio of Catholic University of America, accused another group of sociologists, led by Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame, of making some “highly questionable theological assumptions,” and hence of misleading conclusions with regard to the faith of young Catholics.

Smith concludes that younger Catholics are estranged from the Church primarily because of the religious environment in which they were raised, often by parents who themselves had a weak or non-existent relationship with the Church. Antonio, on the other hand, insists that young Catholics are actually strong in their faith, having simply discovered a “non-compliant” way of being Catholic—a reliance on individual conscience rather than on Church doctrine.

Smith’s thesis has an unchallengeable hard fact behind it—younger Catholics have a weak relationship to the visible Church, with low rates of Mass attendance and a general neglect of the sacraments. Antonio’s approach is unscientific in that it cannot be falsified—young Catholics are found to be devoted to their faith simply because they say they are. To argue, as Antonio seems to do, that somehow this signifies a more authentic faith requires considerable legerdemain.

Antonio reaches “conclusions” that are themselves mere assumptions, the familiar liberal Catholic cliches that have been recycled many times since Vatican II: younger Catholics dissent from official teachings because they are better educated; older Catholics complied with Church teaching merely out of fear and guilt.

The often repeated claim that today’s Catholics are better educated than their predecessors is a classic case of begging the question—are they better educated specifically in the teachings of their faith? Antonio seems to imply that they do not need to be. The Antonio group’s use of the word “compliance” reveals their bias, implying as it does a kind of external conformity devoid of inner conviction. No sociologist (or psychologist or historian) could ever prove that such was the mentality of pre-Vatican II Catholics, and Antonio does not try.

Antonio appears to be gratified to find that among young Catholics, in the hierarchy of Catholic teachings, “sexual and reproductive issues” are widely rejected. But, to compensate, Antonio also announces triumphantly that the same young Catholics remain faithful to such core teachings as “the divinity of Christ and his real presence in the sacraments.”

Here the Antonio sociologists double as a theological magisterium, positing a hierarchy of Catholic teachings some of which can be rejected in the name of a purer faith. The Smith sociologists’ methodology is “deficient” because they do not make the same assumption, according to Antonio, who is critical of Smith for not explaining “why Catholics who disagree with relatively unimportant church teachings continue to think of themselves as good Catholics.…” But on what basis do the sociologists (and, presumably, their subjects) declare “sexual and reproductive issues” to be unimportant?

The sociologists appear to be singularly lacking in curiosity as to why people who believe in “Christ and his real presence in the sacraments” show so little inclination to partake of those sacraments. Perhaps Antonio has it backwards—pre-Vatican II Catholics had a profound faith in the sacraments, while for the younger generation attendance at Mass is mere “compliance.” (Other polls in fact show a steep falling off of Catholic belief in the Real Presence.)

Again hardly surprising, Antonio finds young Catholics to be orthodox on “social teachings related to unions, helping the poor, and capital punishment.” But, as with so much of contemporary American liberalism, this mainly consists of holding correct opinions. Evidence that younger Catholics (and liberal Catholics in general) are truly dedicated to helping the poor is almost entirely anecdotal rather than systematic, which in sociology is a methodological mortal sin.

It might also occur to a sociologist to wonder about people who affirm beliefs that seem to have no obvious practical implications (the divinity of Christ), while rejecting those that do (“sexual and reproductive issues”), and whose devotion to the needy is primarily self-proclaimed. (For more on that matter, see my October 2014 CWR essay, “Old Liberals, Young Liberals, and the Breakdown of the Family”.)

Putting the ideological cart before the sociological horse

Antonio finds the Smith studies threatening, because they have policy implications radically different from his own. Antonio’s findings support the kind of religious free-for-all that was in effect for decades after Vatican II, in which all doctrines and practices seemed open to question, clerical leadership was permissive, religious education at all levels largely ignored doctrine, and little effort was made to achieve “compliance.” The Smith findings, on the other hand, seem to validate the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Antonio’s sociologists do not compare their young Catholics with any other religious groups, an omission that enables Antonio to ignore certain vitally relevant points, such as the Smith finding that there is a much higher level of religious practice among young conservative Protestants, deriving from stronger parental guidance. If Antonio’s thesis is correct, such firm guidance should lead to a reaction by young Protestants against mere “compliance” and in favor of “conscience,” unless Antonio’s sociological method—probing into the inmost reaches of the soul—has managed to discover that young Protestants simply lack conscience.

The Antonio approach justifies hierarchical suspicions of sociology, in that it seeks to dictate pastoral strategy and, most important, is simply incapable of taking seriously any claims to religious truth. Young Catholics simply define their faith to suit themselves. If they rejected the divinity of Christ, logically that would cease to an important doctrine for Antonio.

Young Catholics feel a “responsibility to inform their own consciences, and to follow them as much as possible…,” according to Antonio, a claim that is at best a highly simplistic understanding of Vatican II and that amounts in effect to a denial of sin. Do human beings never rationalize their own failings? What should one think about young Catholics who are economic libertarians? What should one make of the shocking stories about sex, drug, and alcohol abuse even on Catholic campuses?

The Antonio group claims that their findings offer “a more hopeful view of the future” than the Smith group, but it is not clear how. In a sense Antonio does not offer a pastoral strategy at all but merely urges what amounts to a hierarchical policy of laissez-faire, in accordance with which self-professed Catholics, as they move through life, simply define their faith in whatever way they choose. Quite naturally, this often leads to the paradoxical result that a “mature faith” ends as no faith at all, that the “Catholic conscience” simply elides imperceptibly into the secular conscience.

The Antonio group chooses not to compare young Catholics with young Evangelicals because to do so would suggest that “pre-Vatican II” methods of religious education are successful. But it is even more significant that Antonio does not compare young Catholics with young liberal Protestants. There is an excellent reason for not doing so—young liberal Protestants scarcely exist. Anecdotally, groups of active Catholics and active Evangelicals can be found on most college campuses, whereas active groups of Methodists or Episcopalians are rare.

The failings of the sociological method

This past September, three professors from Benedictine University released a study, “Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese: Results from Online Surveys of Active and Inactive Catholics in Central Illinois” (PDF file). As Mark Gray noted in his OSV article, “Lapsed Catholics weigh in on why they left Church” (Oct. 22, 2014), the surveys used in that study “did not use random sampling and fall short of being scientific polls” and “was conducted online with invitations to respond published in the local news media, in advertisements and in Church publications such as the diocesan newspaper and parish bulletins.” Such methods likely weighted the findings in favor of those who have a strong desire to be heard, which usually means those who wish to complain. Even so the findings are ambiguous.

About half left the Church because they “no longer believe,” which is the only valid reason for doing so. But why they no longer believe is unexplained, even though it is a finding that goes to the heart of the Antonio-Smith disagreement: do they no longer believe because they were poorly formed in the faith when young? Two thirds say their “spiritual needs were not met,” almost half are “dissatisfied with the atmosphere,” and over a third said “the music was not enjoyable,” all of which could be said about either a conservative or a liberal parish, depending on the individual’s expectations.

In a sense both liberals and conservatives are correct in their explanations of why people leave the Church.

1). The Church fails to adjust to a changing culture, which cause many people to leave.

2). Some join liberal denominations. Most, perhaps, remain unchurched.

3). Liberal Catholics tend over time to drift away even when they are not dissatisfied with their parishes or dioceses. In particular they often do not hand the faith on to their children.

4). While the Church cannot change its teachings, it nonetheless makes “pastoral” adjustments to the culture that alienate many of its conservative members.

5). Thus many conservatives also leave the Church. There are no hard statistics, but many join Evangelical groups.

6). Those conservative Catholics who remain in the Church tend to be the strongest supporters of parishes, schools, and other institutions.

Forty years ago the liberal sociologist Dean Kelley delineated the process, pointing out that people are attracted to a religion because it gives meaning to their lives. They are willing to sacrifice for that purpose, to the point where, paradoxically, a religion that makes demands on its members thereby gains credibility. Conversely, a liberal religion in effect tells people that they do not need a religion at all, that they can simply join in the common human search for meaning.

At the point where “mainline Protestantism” was going into free fall, Catholic liberals began to imitate it theologically and pastorally. Catholicism has indeed declined statistically, but far less than Episcopalianism or the United Church of Christ. As many people pointed out in connection with the recent Roman synod, demands for change came primarily from Western European bishops who have followed this disastrous pastoral strategy for decades and have suffered the consequences.

The inherent fallacy of the sociological method is obvious here, in that orthodox religion teaches that there is a duty to worship God and to do so in particular ways, from which taste in music or “atmosphere” excuses no one. The sociologist, however, can only treat religion as a kind of consumer product whose vendors must compete for customers.

Editor’s Note/Correction: The original version of this article stated that a study conducted by William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Mary Gautier, and Katherine Meyer was affiliated with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown. That was incorrect. While Gautier is a CARA Senior Research Associate, her work with the American Catholic Laity Series is not part of her work with CARA. The piece also incorrectly identified the “Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese” study, conducted by Benedictine University and the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, as the work of CARA. We regret the errors. 

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About James Hitchcock 0 Articles
James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.