Signs of a Dawning New Era of Lay Initiative

By Philibert, Paul | National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Signs of a Dawning New Era of Lay Initiative


Philibert, Paul, National Catholic Reporter


For decades, sociologists have tracked the trends of American Catholics in demographics, religious behavior and attitudes toward traditional values and church authority.

In 1997, James Davidson and colleagues identified three cohorts of Catholics--pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II--each with its characteristic set of religious tendencies. Likewise, for 30 years William D'Antonio and his colleagues traced changes in attitudes and behavior among Roman Catholics. These studies have generated a relatively clear and consistent picture of U.S. Catholics. In general, they are becoming more autonomous, less observant of traditional practices and more like self-interested consumers of pastoral goods.

However, beneath the surface, what do these studies really mean? Or better, what does it feel like to live out of these categories in the concrete? Jerome Baggett, professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley decided to try to find that out by interviewing almost 300 Catholic parishioners in six parishes in California's San Francisco-Oakland area. These six parishes provide a diversity of race, class and religious attitudes that mirrors remarkably well the church's national profile.

For instance, one parish has become a haven for homosexual Catholics, another a base for the traditionalist right; several of these parishes are models of multicultural diversity, and two of them include significant upper-middle-class and upper-class parishioners.

Baggett chose to interview people who are strongly attached to these parishes, hoping to appreciate how these distinct communities understand and live their ways of being Catholic.

While the national surveys referred to above suggest a picture of the church rent by painful disunity and polarization, Baggett's study, by contrast, provides sketches of parishes that develop meaningful, life-giving ministries for the people who find their spiritual home there. In part, this effect is explained by the voluntary choice of a congenial pastoral setting by people who are aware of the cultural and ideological variety available to them and who search for a place that fits their own idea of sacramental and community life.

This general picture is refined by Baggett's descriptions of "hometown parishes" where caring and emotional support are the attractive element, "multicultural parishes" that "cushion the pain" of being outsiders for those who are still finding their way in an unfamiliar culture, or "oppositional parishes" where a resistance to social wrongs provides the motivation for belonging. It is noteworthy that the two extreme examples of the gay church, on the one hand, and the traditionalist parish, on the other, are both "oppositional" from the perspective of sociological analysis--the first opposing homophobia and the second irreverence. …

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