Some people seem to think that Catholics are as evenly and bitterly divided as the U.S. electorate appears to be in the run-up to the November presidential election.
Political commentators have been telling us for months that this election will be decided by a relative handful of uncommitted voters in the so-called swing states. The reason that the polls show so little movement in one direction or the other is that the great majority of voters, in both the red and the blue states, have long since made up their minds and there is little or no chance of changing them.
This credible assessment of the political situation, however, cannot be applied willy-nilly to the religious scene, even though there are divisions and conflicts within the U.S. Catholic community as well.
There are “blue-state” Catholics who are impatient with the pace of renewal and reform since Vatican II and who are unhappy with some of the policies and episcopal appointments of the current pontificate.
There are also “red-state” Catholics who think that Vatican II was a mistake, or at the very least has been misinterpreted and misused by other Catholics to their left. In their minds Pope John Paul II is “John Paul the Great” for having rescued the church from a period of dangerous drift under Pope Paul VI and for restoring a spirit of moral discipline.
We have to leave it to the social scientists to determine the size of each group in the total U.S. Catholic community. The non-scientific suspicion here is that the latter group, whose voice and concerns have been given unusually serious and sympathetic attention in the current pontificate, is relatively small. Seven percent to 12 percent would be just a guess, and one that may err on the high side.
An equally non-scientific suspicion is that the former group of “blue-state” Catholics, which includes those affiliated, for example, with Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action, is also a distinct minority within the total Catholic population in the United States, but larger than their “red-state” counterparts.
If sociologists and professional pollsters have hard evidence to challenge these non-scientific hunches, by all means they should do so, and we’ll all be the wiser for it. But if they lack the necessary data, they need to get busy gathering it.
At the same time, those who say that the Catholic Church in America is badly polarized should also be required to offer some backing for the charge. Polarization usually means two relatively equal sides at one another’s throats. The assumption that there are only two sides to the conflict and that together they constitute virtually the entire Catholic community also needs to be challenged.
Our hypothesis is that there are at least three distinct constituencies in the U.S. Catholic community: the “blue-state” liberals and moderates who are to one degree or another left of center; the “red-state” conservatives and moderates who are to one degree or another right of center; and the largest of the three groups, namely those for whom theological, doctrinal, liturgical and pastoral debates are beyond their ability to grasp or to care.
This third group of Catholics are like the uncommitted voters in the swing states, many of whom are simply uninterested in the day-to-day political campaigns. This is to say that “uncommitted” is not necessarily identical with “well-informed.”
The uncommitted may have too much else going on in their lives to pay much attention to politics. Once the election is at hand, however, they have to make up their minds or not vote at all.
Comparably uncommitted Catholics may or may not be active in the church. They pay little or no attention to theological and pastoral discussions — until particular issues and debates begin to impinge upon their lives. Then they become engaged.
For example, a new pastor is appointed to a parish that has had both girls and boys serving at Mass for years. Authoritarian in style and old-fashioned in theology, the new pastor decides on his own that girls will no longer be allowed in the sanctuary. Parents of the young girls hear rumors about it and assume there must be some mistake.
But when the story is confirmed, these previously “uncommitted” Catholics react as any healthy person would. Either the new pastor revokes his decision or they’re moving to another parish for Mass and taking their families and their money with them.
As in politics, the challenge is to win over the uncommitted — or at least not kick them in the teeth. They are, after all, the church’s largest constituency.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.Tags: Election News