A 'Solid Majority' of American Catholics Supports Conscience, Lay Role in Decisions

Article excerpt

John Paul's recent Ad Tuendam Fidem, writing into canon law rules against dissent from noninfallible teaching, coupled with Cardinal Ratzinger's explication of it, has renewed discussions about Vatican authority. Such directives often assume that the laity will respond in unity to a demand for obedience.

Vatican leaders may be forgetting that claims to authority will work only when the laity accept that authority in their hearts.

Recent research on the laity leads to these conclusions:

* A solid majority of American Catholics -- even among self-identified conservatives -- say that if a papal directive conflicts with their conscience, they would follow their conscience.

* Catholics believe the laity should be involved in making most church decisions. On only a few narrowly defined, contentious issues (abortion and women's ordination, for example) does less than a majority in any category believe the laity should have a say.

* Conservative, moderate and liberal Catholics are essentially alike in education, family income and a host of other variables. Aside from their views on church politics, in many ways they are mirror images of one another.

On the basis of these findings resulting from research conducted by the authors of this article and others -- we do not expect a split in the laity when Rome acts to tighten control, but we do not expect unquestioned obedience either. We expect lots of reflection over questions of authority, lay participation and the sensus fidelium.

Social science research can help to clarify what the consequences of papal letters are likely to be. Well-aimed research can look at different types of Catholics to estimate how they will respond to authoritative church statements. Recent surveys shed light on lay attitudes and help us predict how laity will respond to apostolic letters that challenge rights to freedom of conscience that many Catholics feel they have.

In 1996 and 1997 the Project on Small Christian Communities, funded by the Lilly Endowment, carried out surveys of members of two types of small faith communities and also of all persons in America who called themselves Catholics. These surveys permit us to compare attitudes and beliefs of three distinct categories of Catholics.

First is a representative sample of members of Catholic charismatic prayer groups. Second is a sample of members of parish groups commonly known as small Christian communities. Third is a national random sample of self-identified Catholics, polled by phone. We identify them here as "typical Catholics."

We will also refer to a sub-sample of the sample of typical Catholics, composed of people who said they belonged to one or more church-related groups such as religious education groups, Christian initiation of adults groups, Knights of Columbus, ladies altar society, right-to-life and Bible study groups. We refer to them as "active parish" Catholics. They represent the solid members who are indispensable for creating vital parish life (40 percent of the total sample).

The surveys of charismatics and small Christian community members were done by mail in spring 1997. The national survey of Catholics was done by the University of Maryland Survey Research Center in autumn 1996.

Highly committed

The charismatic prayer movement in the Catholic church arose in the 1960s and reached its peak in the 1980s, when some reports claimed up to 10 million adherents. The estimated total number of active members today is about 130,000. Also the communities that form the core of the small Christian community movement in the United States arose soon after Vatican II. Now more than 24,000 communities are active, with an estimated national membership of about 460,000.

Although these two groups constitute less than 1 percent of the American Catholic population, they are two of the most highly committed segments of American Catholics and they are likely to reflect seriously on the pope's apostolic letters. …