Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith

Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith

Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith

Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith


The image of the "cafeteria Catholic" -- one who blithely picks and chooses those doctrines that suit him -- is a staple of American culture. But are American Catholics really so nonchalant about how they integrate the ancient devotional practices of Catholicism with the everyday struggles of the modern world?

For Sense of the Faithful, Jerome Baggett conducted 300 intensive interviews with members of six parishes to explore all aspects of this question. The book is an act of listening that allows ordinary Catholics to speak for themselves about how they understand their faith and how they draw upon it to find purpose in their lives.

Many American Catholics, Baggett shows, do indeed have an uneasy relationship with the official teachings of the Church and struggle to live faithfully amidst the challenges of the modern world. But Baggett finds that it is a genuine struggle, one that reveals a dynamic and self-aware relationship to the Church's teachings. Moving beyond the simplistic categories of national surveys and the politically motivated pronouncements of pundits,Sense of the Faithfulultimately paints a more complex -- and more accurate -- portrait of what it is like to be Catholic in America today.


This book, to use a familiar expression, is truly a “conversation piece.” The idea of writing it first occurred to me as a result of many conversations with people, especially my students and colleagues at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, regarding present-day American Catholicism. These exchanges made me realize just how little we actually know about the people in the pews, particularly how they, while thoroughly modern, continue to find a great deal of meaning in their two-millennia-old religious tradition.

To be sure, whatever this book might add to our knowledge about such concerns is also the product of much conversation. As I describe more fully toward the end of the first chapter, it is based primarily on extensive interviews with nearly three hundred active members of six Catholic parishes scattered throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. These have afforded me a ground-level view of American Catholicism. Rather than “official” pronouncements from church leaders, the focus of this book is on the decidedly “nonofficial” viewpoints expressed by the rank and file. Relying less on what are often very helpful, broad-based surveys, I plumb depths of meaning that are accessible only through more prolonged discussion. And, in resistance to simplistic and all-too-ubiquitous punditries about the American laity, my purpose has been to engage laypeople in dialogue in order to take stock of what they actually say for themselves.

This in itself is a worthwhile undertaking. Nevertheless, I hope that what I have recorded here will stimulate still more conversation. When I reflect on the remarkable candor and seriousness that parishioners brought to these interviews, I cannot help but think they model the very sort of open conversation about faith, doubt, and religious community that is too often lacking in the current discourse on such . . .

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