That stark divide in Catholics in America and on high court

Shortly before Barack Obama reached the White House, pollster John C. Green of the University of Akron visited the classroom here at the Washington Journalism Center to meet with a circle of mainstream journalists from around the world. At one point during his presentation, he created a chart detailing the changing landscape of religion in contemporary America.

The key was that a solid belt of religious believers — something like 20 percent or so — remained on the cultural right, people who could be identified in a number of ways — but primarily by the fact that they actively practiced more traditional forms of religious faith. Worship attendance was one key statistic.

On the cultural left, a fascinating coalition was emerging that was about the same size as the one on the right. This camp — roughly 20 percent or so — consisted of a growing number of people who were openly agnostic or atheist or who were — this was the emerging trend — the so-called “nones,” vaguely spiritual people with no ties to religious bodies.

These religiously unaffiliated Americans were natural allies, on social and moral issues, with liberal believers and the larger numbers of ordinary people who claimed religious ties, but rarely took part in worship. That’s the sea of vaguely spiritual folks in the middle of our national life that I often refer to as “Oprah America.”

The growth on the moral, cultural and religious left was highly significant, said Green. It was also very important to know that the vaguely religious landscape in the middle was changing, with the movement in the direction of a moderated cultural liberalism, rooted in radical individualism.

All of this information, and more, would hit the headlines — with Green as a major voice in the presentations — through the landmark Pew Forum “nones” study (click here for .pdf) released in the fall of 2012.

I bring it up to note another one of the fine details in the data in a related Pew Forum study, a detail that certainly appears to be linked to a religion ghost in today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Green had noted that it is impossible to discuss any of today hot-button social and moral issues — gay rights in particular — without noting the changes sweeping through the ranks of white Catholics, especially those who rarely attend Mass. The frequent Mass attenders tended to remain loyal to Catholic beliefs. Those who rarely attended Mass? No way.

As noted in a 2010 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

White mainline Protestants and white Catholics have become more supportive of gay marriage, though virtually all of the change in opinion among both groups has come among those who attend services relatively infrequently.

About half (49%) of white mainline Protestants support same-sex marriage while 38% oppose this. This is a reversal of opinion from the past two years when 40% favored and 49% opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Just 35% of white mainline Protestants who attend church at least once a week favor same-sex marriage, nearly the same percentage as in 2008-2009 (34%). Among those who attend services less often, support has increased by 11 points (from 42% to 53%).

There has been a similar shift among white Catholics — 49% now favor same-sex marriage while 41% are opposed. Opinion was more evenly divided over the past two years (44% favor, 45% oppose). Here too, support has increased among those who attend services less than weekly, from 51% in 2008-2009 to 59% in 2010.

And what about that powerful circle of American Catholics involved in the U.S. Supreme Court decision?

This is an angle that may or may not appear in the early days of coverage of this landmark decision, yet another potential earthquake in American culture linked to a bitterly divided court’s 5-4 decision, one written by a Catholic who leans left on issues of culture and morality.

As for now, reporters need only look at the names in the two camps. Here’s a bite of the early New York Times coverage, which, naturally enough at this early point in the coverage, is free of religion content:

The decision on the federal law was 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, which the four liberal-leaning justices joined.

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was in the minority, as were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Now, who are the members of the court who are known to be active, practicing Catholics and don’t mind people knowing that?

And, who are the Catholics with Kennedy on the other side of the issue? Who are the other members of the high court who are consistently identified as “cultural” Catholics who are not known to be active at the level of parishes and regular participation in the sacraments?

At least at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, this stark division among American Catholics — the weekly Mass attenders vs. the cultural Catholics — seems to be an important element of the story of the day.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    I hope this isn’t off topic, but the post reminded me of this article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/nyregion/as-archdioceses-schools-retrench-worries-grow-for-a-building-block-for-minority-students.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    I think the notion of disconnects in Catholic life is the trigger. This article manages to review the decline in New York Catholic schools with nothing theological or religious to say. Justice Sotomeyer is a central figure, one of several prominent professionals who attribute their success to Catholic education. Sotomeyer, at least, dissents from serious Catholic teachings, but has fond memories of her elementary school.
    Disconnects all around.

    • JoFro

      Yup! I read the article thinking the same thing – disconnects all around! Catholics don’t want to have children but they want Catholic schools to continue flourishing – say what?

  • boinkie

    This is the logical outcome of the “Casey” abortion decision, which says Americans have the freedom to chose our own vision of life. This posits every American as isolated free individuals, allowed to “do their own thing”, whereas most societies posit a person as part of a family.

    To live as free individuals, we need the state as the caretaker for times of trouble, whereas here in the Philippines, (or in tribal areas of Africa, or indeed in much of “red state America”), the extended family does this job.

    Not only does the MSM ignore the religious aspect, but no MSM seems aware of the sociological implications of this. decision.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    If you don’t regularly attend Mass, by what definition are you Catholic?

    • BM

      We need to divide the terms, I’m afraid. It is true that one baptized as a Catholic is indeed, in their being or ontologically, forever marked as a Catholic. Hence, once Catholic, always Catholic. But traditionally, it would seem that those who deny parts of the Catholic faith were not only not called “Catholic”, but were not even called “Christian”. Hence, Arians were called “Arians”, because they followed Arius’s teaching and not that of Christ given through his Church. I.e., you should be named after what/who you follow. Cf. Canisius’s famous Catechism; he addresses this in the very first question: Who ought to be called a Christian? (Don’t expect a modern Catholic to uphold this view, however. It isn’t politically correct. And we seem to be more concerned with appearances than with the truth of the matter.)

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Political correctness = lying, in my book.

      • wlinden

        So Protestants should not be called “Christian”?

    • JoFro

      Church attendance is not a good criteria – if you want to know if Catholics are being faithful to the Church, ask how many of them go for confession? There are many Catholics who go for Sunday Mass who do so out of habit and to meet friends and not because they believe in the teachings of their church. Also, why is that Catholics are only expected to go to church only on Sundays, like Protestants? Aren’t Catholics supposed to be trying to go to Church for Daily Mass? Whatever happened about Daily Mass?

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Capitalism happened to Daily Mass. Some of us can’t feed our families and make it to Daily Mass- just as Pope Leo XIII predicted would happen in Rerum Novarum.

        • JoFro

          I would disagree! Many parishes have Daily Mass early in the morning, afternoon and evening – I can’t see how it’s difficult to miss Daily Mass unless of course you are in a parish where that is not the case!

          • TheodoreSeeber

            None of the ones around me offer more than two daily masses a day- usually at 7am and 10 am (the second being the mass for a parish with a school)- plus at times I need to work 12-16 hours a day in my career.

            I don’t know of a single evening daily mass in the area, and I think the nearest noon mass is an hour’s drive away. Somehow I think my employer would not look well upon daily 3 hour lunches.

  • Ted

    The Catholic Church sometimes refers to itself metaphorically as “Holy Mother Church.” Leaving aside the telling fact that the Church admits no women to positions of influence or authority, the hierarchy might find it enlightening to learn what real mothers with children can teach us, what real parental love can mean as far as gay women and men are concerned.

    Mother and fathers react in different ways when they learn that their child is homosexual. Some are saddened or shocked by the news. Being gay is not necessarily something they would have wanted for their child or expected.
    Perhaps they don’t understand why or what it means. Some may wish that it were not true. Incredibly in 2013, there are even some parents who reject the child for religious, social or other reasons.

    But after the initial confusion or shock, many parents respond to their gay child with love. And since love is, among other things, a way of knowing it can lead to new understanding. It can allow parents to learn from their daughters and sons, to
    see the world through their eyes and their experience. It prompts them to question old assumptions and values. Love has the power to transform them.

    The same is true for other family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Knowing and caring about someone who is gay changes you. That is because you know in the deepest way possible that your sister or friend or uncle is a good, decent person because you know them through love. You know them as a human being and understand that being gay is part of
    who they are.

    This explains the big change in attitudes towards homosexuality and gay marriage. The whole conversation shifts radially when it’s my brother, daughter or friend that you are talking about. Judgments about being “intrinsically disordered” or “evil” or a “threat to traditional marriage” are seen to be the neurotic projections or cruel distortions
    that they are.

    The people who honor the humanity of gay people are doing so not because they are being trendy or have succumbed to relativistic morals. They do so because they themselves have become more human in the very finest sense of the word.

    And so when a religious leader says in reference to gay people as New York’s Cardinal Dolan did recently on television, “I love you, too,” it’s hard to know what he means. In the context of his Church’s teaching and actions that cause real pain and damage to gay people, that statement sounds grotesque. In this context, Holy Mother Church is a mean mother.

    But it makes you wonder. Are any of the bishops close to someone who is gay? Do they love a gay woman or man as a friend? Could they look such a person in the eyes and say, “I love you. But it is sinful for you to show your love to someone with your full humanity, to express it sexually with tenderness and affection?”

    And this is the essential fault in the Church’s teaching about homosexuality: It is heartless and inhuman. And now many people, including many Catholics, know and understand this.

    The hierarchy and priests take a solemn vow to live a life without physical affection, romantic love or intimacy. Perhaps this void in their human experience explains whey they can only talk about gay sex but never about gay love. In seeing homosexuals as being “intrinsically disordered,” they are denying the possibility
    that there can be such a thing as gay love. In this respect, the Church is heartless and dehumanizes homosexuals.

    The good cardinal and his fellow prelates look at gay men and women and see intrinsic disorder and talk about sinful sex. Happily, real mothers and fathers and more and more people look at this same group and see fellow human beings and talk about love and equality.

    Holy Mother Church needs to love the way real mothers do.

    • Quid

      A real mother would love her child, but not want him to do something harmful to himself even if he gets pleasure from it. Would you say a mother who doesn’t let her children play with knives doesn’t love them?

      • Ted

        Many mothers and fathers who know their gay children through love understand that their homosexuality is part of their humanity. I believe these parents would find it difficult to understand your reference to a knife or JoFro’s reference to alcoholism.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          I understand that disobedience is a part of my son’s humanity, that doesn’t mean I want to see him commit suicide with drugs or homosexuality.

          Addiction is addiction.

          • Ted

            I really don’t know how to respond to your comment. Commit suicide with homosexuality? What is going through your mind?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Homosexual men have a 44% greater chance of STDs than heterosexuals. Lesbians have less of a chance- but I had a cousin whose lesbian/wiccan coven took her out of the hospital and off life support against the wishes of her parents, and then proceeded to make her leukemia worse with a yeast infection from fisting.

            Heterosexual sex can also be dangerous of course, except for the overwhelming good of children. Take children out of the picture though, and you don’t have marriage anymore, you have mutual rape and using the other person for your own ends.

            Lust, when divorced from Eros, Storge, Philia, and Agape, is not a good thing. Unfortunately we in America have reduced love to just lust, and nothing else.

            I’ve supported a separation of State Civil Unions and Church Sacramental Weddings since the early 1990s, for this very reason. Of course, since March 2004, that makes me an evil bigot for recognizing that State Civil Unions *currently* cannot be described as a marriage- even heterosexual, contracepted, ’til we get bored do we part (no fault divorce) ones.

            Real Catholic Sacramental Marriage requires much, much more. It requires a love of self-sacrifice. It requires being open enough to life that 9 months later you have to give your love a name and spend the next 35 years of your life raising that child. It means a man and a woman staying together for life and saying no to divorce, annulment, or anything else from this fallen world that attacks the family.

            We need more. We need our priests and bishops to step up and defend the faith by just saying no to signing state marriage licenses. We need to reclaim the word “marriage” for sacramental marriages alone. We need our tribunals to stop rubber stamping divorce with an annulment and fight for the rights of children to know and live with both parents full time.

            What we don’t need is to start lying and start endorsing marriage as anything other than the definition found in paragraphs 2197-2257 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let the pagans do what they want, but stick up for the language of Sacramental Marriage.

          • Ted

            Thank you for your response.

            I suppose your idea of defending the family and “Sacramental Marriage” would have more force if it included vigorous support for a living wage, affordable health care and a decent education. The absence of these things has a devastating effect on families.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I actually do have vigorous support for those things. I just see them as best provided in subsidiarity on a local level rather than solidarity on a national level.

            But since subsidiarity is effectively illegal in the United States under Article I Section 10 of the US Constitution, our second-best-hope is an expansion of WIC and Welfare.

            I don’t vote for Republicans for that reason, and I refuse to vote for Democrats because of abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.

            I, like several million others, need a third option. Desperately.

    • JoFro

      So a mother of an alcoholic should celebrate his alcoholism because he can’t help himself because she probably drank when he was born?

      She would still love him but to act as though that love means she allows him to take part in something that might be destructive to him, would not be love on her part!

      The church teaches the act of homosexuality is disordered – she calls on her children to love those affected by this disorder. She even expects them to protect them from hate but not from the Truth!

    • TheodoreSeeber

      “Leaving aside the telling fact that the Church admits no women to positions of influence or authority”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Drexel
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_of_Siena
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Angelica
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th%C3%A9r%C3%A8se_of_Lisieux

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clare_of_Assisi

      And there are thousands of others.

      BTW, I deny there can be such a thing as gay love, but then again, I deny there can be such a thing as premarital heterosexual love. Eros cannot be fulfilled until you have a third person involved. Eros isn’t fulfilled until it becomes storge, storge isn’t fulfilled until it becomes philia, philia isn’t fulfilled until it becomes agape.

  • Torin

    I disagree with Mr. Mattingly. . When I go to Church I don’t see families with 6 or 7 children like I did when I was young. Are married men and women less fertile than in the 70′s or 80′s? I think many married couples in the Church are privately using birth control. So, I am not sure is definition holds.

    • JoFro

      They should ask them how many times they go for confession.
      Also they should ask them if they go for Daily Mass rather than Sunday Mass?

      I believe that a “Daily Mass going and frequently confession going Catholic” is more likely to be faithful to the Church compared to a “only Sunday going, never goes for confession Catholic”.

      We cannot just rely on data that tells us who is going to Mass on Sunday. After all, alot of Catholics who do not believe in Church teachings go for only Sunday mass, mostly out of habit and sometimes to meet friends!

  • Quid

    I think the Church actually has grounds for excommunicating anyone who supports gay marriage (regardless of how imprudent that would be) for being unfaithful to the teachings of the Church. After WWII Pius XII threatened to excommunicate anyone in Italy who favored Communism because it was directly opposed to the Church.


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