National Catholic Reporter

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Catholics in America

Catholic education: Does it still make a difference?

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Education

We have asked about attendance at a Catholic school or college several times since we began this series of studies of American Catholics. The questions were included in 1993 and 2005 as well as in this 2011 survey. The results have been very consistent with what we know about access to Catholic education over time. In general, pre-Vatican II Catholics had relatively good access to Catholic education: About four in 10 attended a Catholic elementary school, one in four attended a Catholic high school, and one in 10 attended a Catholic college.

How parish life has changed

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Parish Life

A lot has changed in parish life in a quarter-century, yet American Catholics are still predominantly attached to territorial parishes headed by a priest pastor. The model is being stretched and transformed, however, by tremendous demographic changes in the Catholic population. Church leaders are struggling to keep up.

In the years since we began this series on American Catholic laity, the Catholic population in the United States has increased by more than a fifth. It continues to grow at about 1 percent a year and even conservative estimates project that Catholics will top 100 million by the middle of the 21st century. The Catholic population is becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse as well, influenced by immigration from predominantly Catholic countries around the world.

About the survey

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Methodology

This survey was conducted online among a sample of 1,442 self-identified Catholic adults who are part of the Knowledge Networks’ KnowledgePanel. The KnowledgePanel is a nationally representative probability sample of the U.S. adult population. Panel respondents who do not have Internet access are provided with Internet service and free laptop computers by Knowledge Networks, which ensures that panel respondents are representative of the national population and are not limited only to those who already use the Internet. Additional details about the KnowledgePanel are available on the Knowledge Networks website at www.knowledgenetworks.com/knpanel/KNPanel-Design-Summary.html.

About the authors and upcoming events

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About the authors

William V. D’Antonio joined the sociology faculty of The Catholic University of America as a visiting research professor in 1993. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University. He is the coauthor of eight books and coeditor of four. His most recent coauthored books include American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church and Voices of the Faithful: Loyal Catholics Striving for Change.

D’Antonio has taught at Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame, where he served as chair of the sociology department from 1966-71. He moved to the University of Connecticut in 1971 as professor and chair of the sociology department, and later served as executive officer of the American Sociological Association from 1982-91.

Old and new spiritual resources

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Spirituality

Much has been written in recent years about the declining hold of traditional church boundaries on Americans’ religious and spiritual beliefs and their understanding of religious truth and how it is mediated. Catholics are not immune to these cultural changes. An overwhelming majority in our survey, 88 percent, agree that how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic (with 56 percent of these strongly agreeing).

Trends in Catholic commitment stable over time

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Commitment

American Catholics continue to maintain a moderate to high degree of commitment to the church. As in past surveys, we assessed our respondents’ commitment by combining their responses to three separate questions: “How important is the Catholic church to you personally?”; “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you go to Mass?”; and “On a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 indicating you would never leave the church, and 7 indicating you might leave the church, where would you place yourself?” We categorized highly committed Catholics as those who said that the church was the most important or among the most important parts of their life, who attended church once a week or more often, and who placed themselves at either one or two on the seven-point scale. Using these high-threshold criteria, 19 percent of our respondents were highly committed Catholics, an additional two-thirds (66 percent) were moderately committed, and 14 percent had low levels of commitment. Clearly, for Catholics, moderate commitment is the norm.

What is core to American Catholics in 2011

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The term “cafeteria Catholic” has been used for many years to refer to the fact that Catholics tend to selectively prioritize certain aspects of Catholic theology and tradition while seeing other strands as comparatively less important to the practice of Catholicism. The phrase is typically used dismissively and has prompted some church leaders and observers to suggest that the church might be better off if Catholics who do not subscribe to the full orthodoxy of Catholicism were pruned from its ranks. The sociological reality, however, is more complicated. Catholic orthodoxy is itself heavily encrusted with doctrinal shifts, institutional changes and theological nuance, characteristics befitting Catholicism’s long history and constituting a pluralistic tradition that allows for more thoughtful individual autonomy than some might assume. Additionally, the doctrinal selectivity of contemporary Catholics is much more constrained by, and attuned to, the Catholic tradition than the cafeteria metaphor suggests.

New survey offers portrait of U.S. Catholics

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Our research team has now carried out the fifth survey of American Catholics. The first survey, done just after Easter in 1987 and in anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s second visit to the United States, was designed with the hope that our bishops and the pope would find value in a demographic profile of American Catholics as well as a sketch of their beliefs, practices and attitudes.

Survey reveals generation shift in the Catholic church

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Generations

A growing body of literature in sociology has shown that experiences during individuals’ formative years, especially traumatic events such as wars, the Great Depression, tsunamis and other disasters, produce cultural and structural patterns within the particular period that set apart those who have lived through them from other generations. We applied this idea to Roman Catholics in the United States, because there are important historical events that demarcate distinct Catholic generations, with the Second Vatican Council as the major divide in the recent history of the church. It made sense to distinguish among three distinctive generations of Catholics: pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics. The differences we found from our surveys of 1987 and 1993 led us to expect that the generations would continue to have different beliefs, practices and attitudes toward the church throughout their lives, even when they were at the same age or stage in life as the generations immediately before and after them. Our five surveys over 25 years enable us to test that expectation.

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