Catholic doesn’t always mean universal

National Catholic Reporter has posted the results of their Catholics in America study, which is chock-full of interesting data on the faith lives of those who make up our church in the United States. The study covers everything from parish life to reactions to the sex abuse scandal to how well Catholics understand the Eucharist, all of which is interesting reading.

It would be impossible to cover the whole study in one blog post, but there was one particular portion that caught my attention: what makes someone a “good Catholic”?

There is a lot of disagreement these days on this particular question. We often see some Catholics claiming that a fellow member of the church is “not as Catholic” as they are, or claiming that another person’s understanding of the Catholic faith is somehow “wrong” because of what they do or don’t do in their personal faith lives. So it is not surprising that when it comes to what is most important to Catholics, the answers are all over the map.

At the top of the list is the resurrection, which 73 percent of Catholics surveyed say is “very important” to their faith (and what, may I ask, do the other 27 percent think about the resurrection? That it just makes for a nice story?) 

Coming in second is helping the poor, which 67 percent say is very important to their Catholic faith. Concern for the poor far outranks some of the big social issues often associated with the Catholic Church, such as opposition to abortion (40 percent) and opposition to same-sex marriage (35 percent). Matters of spirituality fall somewhere in the middle, and the importance of Vatican authority is pretty far down the list with only 30 percent citing it as a key component of their faith. A celibate, all male clergy is at the bottom of the list with 21 percent.

As for what makes someone a “good Catholic,” there’s a wide range of opinion there as well. An overwhelming 78 percent say it doesn’t require going to Mass every Sunday, which explains the fact that only 31 percent say they actually do attend Mass at least once a week (and 47 percent say they attend less than once a month).

Even among those who identify themselves as “highly committed” Catholics, there are large numbers who say you don’t have to follow church teaching on issues like birth control (60 percent), divorce and remarriage (46 percent), and abortion (31 percent) to still be a good Catholic. Of those who are “highly committed,” 56 percent also say it isn’t necessarily important for Catholics to help out in their parishes.

Just looking at this particular portion of the study, one gets a picture that today’s Catholics believe much more in what is convenient than what is universal truth. With such a huge gap in how members of the church view their faith, it is going to be a challenge for the church to get its members back on the same page, no less to bring back the many who have made a permanent exit from the pews.

When the U.S. bishops gather in a few weeks for their annual general assembly, hopefully they’ll have a chance to talk, formally or informally, about these results. The findings can help church leaders see where the average Catholic has drifted from the true teachings of their faith–and where the bishops have fallen out of touch with the issues that really matter to Catholics today.