Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic Attitudes, Beliefs, Behavior

By D'antonio, William V. | National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic Attitudes, Beliefs, Behavior


D'antonio, William V., National Catholic Reporter


Trends in Catholic attitudes show a gradual movement toward more personal responsibility and at the same time toward a desire for more lay participation in decision-making within the institutional church. The areas of personal responsibility seem focused primarily on matters of sexuality and marriage, while the laity's desire for more active participation in decisions involving church life extend well beyond matters of sexuality and marriage.

The first major trends are found in the way Catholics as a whole have come to think about the locus of moral authority, and on democratic decision-making in the Catholic church. We then take a closer look at these trends when we control for frequency of Mass attendance, the strongest single predictor of acceptance of church teachings.

Table 3 compares the responses of Catholics across the three time periods to the question of where they think the locus of moral authority should rest. The trend is clearly toward declining support for church leaders (pope and bishops) as the locus of moral authority in helping people decide what is morally right or wrong on five issues dealing with marriage and sexuality. The outspokenness of church leaders on these issues during the past 12 years has not stopped the trend. Support for the institutional church's position has declined even an abortion and on non-marital sex. Less than one in four Catholics thinks church leaders alone should have the final say in these matters.

The trend is increasingly toward seeing the individual as having the final say on these moral issues. On two of the issues (remarrying without an annulment and active homosexuality) there has been a significant movement toward the individual over 12 years. On the other issues, support remains steady at close to 50 percent. Overall, support for the individual as the locus of moral authority now ranges between 45 percent and 61 percent, which is more than double the support given to church leaders.

The third option given respondents on this question was that church leaders should work together with the laity to develop these moral teachings. It received more support from the laity than did church leaders alone on every one of the five items. Still, the trend toward personal autonomy (individuals deciding for themselves) and away from either "Church Leaders" or "Both" has grown on every one of the five items during these 12 years.

The trend is toward more democratic decision-making at all three levels of the church is clear. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for such participation is found at the parish level with two out of three Catholics favoring more democracy. It is at this level that numerous parishes have moved to implement the reforms of Vatican II that encourage such participation. NCR has featured some of these parishes over the course of the past several years.

Six out of 10 Catholics also favor more participation at the diocesan level, which reflects a growing pattern of diocesan participation. According to Murnion and DeLambo (New Parish Ministries, 1999), more than 30,000 laity now work in parish and diocesan offices at almost all administrative levels.

The Second Vatican Council promised much more collegiality at least between the pope and the bishops than has so far been realized. While little progress has been made in participatory decision-making at the level of the Vatican, a majority of American Catholics (55 percent) continue to favor such participation. The Papal Birth Control Commission, with its mix of laity, theologians, bishops, scientists and philosophers, provided the laity who remember the 1960s an example of a mechanism for participatory decision-making that could become a model for the church.

More recently, the 1980s saw the publication of two major documents sponsored by the U.S. bishops, the Peace Pastoral (1983) and the Pastoral on the Economy (1986). Both documents received extensive input from laity (right, center and left), and were well received by the broader public. …

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