The calibrations and ruminations of sociologists all too often dress up as expert “findings” what we already knew, resulting in conventional wisdom with numbers added. (Anticipating another protest from that thoughtful sociologist Christian Smith, I quickly add that there are notable exceptions.) That is, for the most part, the case with American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church , edited by William V. D’Antonio and his sociological colleagues (Rowman & Littlefield). The “new realities” will not strike anyone who has been paying attention over the last four decades as very new. Continuities prevail over discontinuities. Much like life itself, you might well say.

Which does not prevent certain presidential aspirants from chanting the weary old promise of CHANGE! Change from what to what? Never mind. Change is the mantra of the neophiliac who has nothing new to say, and it casts a spell over those who are too young to know how old it is. My colleague Jim Nuechterlein sums up his conservative philosophy in the simple statement that “Change is bad.” That goes too far, of course, but it’s a sentiment that is nice to hear for a change. But let me get back to American Catholics Today .

The research behind the book was sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter , the premier voice of liberal Catholicism in this country, but, to their credit, the authors generally keep their liberal leanings in check. Also generally kept in check is the sociological determinism to which many are prone. As Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson writes in the preface, “We need to keep in mind that in our Catholic understanding, church doctrine is discerned or determined not by sociological methods but by the magisterium in fidelity to Christ’s teaching.”

A problem with American Catholics Today is not so much ideological bias as that its “findings” are so embarrassingly jejune. Item: “Laypeople continue to identify with the faith and remain committed to the Church, but they have many differences with the hierarchy when it comes to specific teachings and policies.” Item: “Significant others can affect the way laypeople identify with the Catholic faith.” Item: “The reality of American Catholics is that the groups at each end of the continuum are small, with a majority of Catholics in the middle.” Item: “In the analysis of Catholic identity, we found that some elements of being Catholic are seen as central to the faith and others are peripheral.” Well, you get the idea. American Catholics Today is not a page-turner.

There are also items of real interest. For instance, 81 percent say that “belief that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist” is essential in their understanding of the Catholic faith. Keep in mind that the survey is of a cross section of the 65 million Catholics in the U.S. (although Latinos are greatly underrepresented). Among the more highly committed Catholics, it is reasonable to assume that belief in the Real Presence is considerably higher than 81 percent. This is worth keeping in mind because some years ago a clumsily worded question in a survey came up with the conclusion that only one third of Catholics believed in the Real Presence, and that “finding” still crops up in discussions on the state of Catholicism. Among active Catholics, belief in the Real Presence, as also in the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection of Jesus, edges up toward unanimity.

On another subject, 76 percent of Catholics who register a “high commitment” say that the Church’s teaching on abortion is “very important,” as do 39 percent of those in the “medium commitment” category and 18 percent who register “low commitment.” As for the impact of the sex-abuse scandals, 7 percent say it has decreased their commitment to the Church, 11 percent say it has increased their commitment, and 80 percent say it has had no effect on their commitment. Catholics are not Donatists. They do not believe that the truth of the faith or the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the impeccability or, for that matter, the moral probity of the Church’s ministry. On the other hand, it may be that those who increased their commitment were rallying to the support of respected priests who they believed had been unfairly smeared by association with the highly publicized delinquencies of a relatively small number of their fellows.

Possible explanations abound. A less edifying explanation is that the old habits of a deeply entrenched clericalism kicked in once again. The Church is identified with the clergy and therefore to be defended no matter what. Clericalism is the shadowed side of Catholicism’s high view of Christian ministry. It confuses the priest’s sacramentally acting in persona Christi with priestly prerogative and immunity from criticism. It is the shadowed side that largely explains the patterns of denial, deceit, and evasion that produced the sex-abuse crisis in the first place, including the pattern of bishops who say, and in many cases may sincerely believe, that their “ministry of unity” takes priority over living in the truth.

According to this study, 70 percent of respondents are “satisfied” with the leadership of the bishops, and, according to other studies, some 90 percent think their parish pastors are doing a fine job. Of course it is far from obvious that most Catholics have any idea what bishops should be doing and therefore have no basis for deciding whether they’re doing it well. Apart from confirmations, dedications, and other ceremonial occasions, Catholics have little contact with their bishops or occasion to think about them. Pope and bishop are mentioned by name in the eucharistic prayer, which is a regular reminder that the parish congregation is part of the universal Church. But for most Catholics, the experienced reality of the Church is the parish. While in Catholic ecclesiology “the local Church” means the diocese and the bishop who exercises his ministry through his presbyters and deacons, in popular usage the local church is the church located on, for instance, the corner of First Avenue and Fourteenth Street.

Some scholars have suggested that this focus on the parish is a virtual congregationalism and is the result of Catholic assimilation to the ecclesiology of a dominantly Protestant America. There is no doubt something to that. As it is said of politics, however, so it may also be said that all Catholicism is local Catholicism. Except, of course, for papal visits and occasions such as World Youth Day, when the banners of universality are unfurled and the faithful get an intimation that even their bishop is, by virtue of his relationship with Peter, something more than the manager of the Catholic branch office called the chancery.

Throughout history the connections between universal Church, local Church, and parish Church have been flexible, and frequently conflicted. In the pages of First Things , I will be returning to a recent and intriguing book by Augustine Thompson, a Dominican scholar, Cities of God: The Religion of Italian Communes 1125“1325 . Father Thompson describes in great detail the ways in which civic and ecclesial communities were inseparably entangled, and the efforts of bishops to concentrate religious life in their cathedrals. That, for instance, is the reason for the large and magnificent baptisteries in cities such as Florence. The ordinary practice was for all the children of the diocese to be baptized by the bishop and his assistants at the cathedral in the Easter Vigil. (By the way, this weekend is the last opportunity to see the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s stunning “Gates of Paradise” from the Florence baptistery.)

Returning to the finding that 70 percent of Catholics approve of the job their bishops are doing, I have no idea what that means. To be sure, there are bishops who have a very public presence in their capacity as teachers. One thinks, for instance, of the late John Cardinal O’Connor here in New York or, among today’s bishops, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. But they are the exception. In the February issue of First Things , Michael Scaperlanda of the University of Oklahoma has an incisive analysis of problems encountered when bishops speak to public issues (subscription required). His analysis is occasioned by recent statements on immigration policy by the bishops of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

A disturbing statistic in American Catholics Today is that, while in 1945 there were 24.4 million Catholics and in 2005 there were 63.9 million, the number of baptisms per year increased only from 793,000 to just slightly over one million. Is this due to people having fewer children or to children not being baptized? Or to both? And doesn’t it have a bearing on how the number of Catholics is counted? I have asked in vain. Perhaps somebody has an explanation. It is, in view of larger social patterns, easier to understand why there were actually fewer weddings in 2005 than in 1945, despite the enormous growth in the number of Catholics.

In my book Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth , I underscore the crucial distinction between being an American Catholic and being a Catholic American. My point is that the adjective controls whether one is an American who happens to be Catholic or a Catholic who happens to be American. As you might expect, I make the case for being a Catholic American. But you can be sure that I do so in full awareness of the prevailing, and frequently depressing, reality of American Catholics Today .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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