September 16, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
The Catholic one-fourth of America is easy to find when one does "Sightings." Catholic sociologists and polltakers are bringing to view attitudes, opinions, and stances that range far beyond anything that can be comprehended in the current crisis. William Bole reports on their endeavors in The American Catholics in the Public Square Project, supported in part by Commonweal (his article appears in the September 13 issue). He also points us to some informative websites: http://www.cara.georgetown.edu/forgeria/Public Square.pdf and www.catholicsinpublicsquare.org.
It would be fun to report that they turn up findings of drastic change or sharp polarities. Not so. Insofar as self-consciously identified Catholics, and especially those with intense (i.e., regular mass-going) commitments are concerned, most do not draw consciously on Catholic social teaching. Most do not stand out vividly from the rest of the population. Their party affiliation is not as predictably Democratic as it used to be nor by any means as solidly Republican as the "evangelical" one-fourth is -- 84 percent of that cohort voted for the Republican ticket in 2000.
Despite this generally blurry picture, Bole et alia do find creative ways to talk about Catholic distinctives, such as they are. On one hand, those heavily influenced by formal Catholic social teaching, Vatican-inspired or formulated by American bishops in recent years, should identify with the "communitarian" ethics and ethos, with readiness to support governmental efforts to address social concerns, poverty, and the like. On the other, those who are more ambiguous about some of those social teachings, but avid about retaining and identifying with conservative Catholic cultural themes, usually get profiled and often are devoted to "consistent-life" ethics.
What do the surveys find? Bole, a phrasemaker who keeps his readers awake, sees the gravitation to these poles as soft and attachments mild. In other words, most Catholics are like the vast majority of Americans -- not heavily ideological and therefore not easily "typed" with the vehement minorities in the "culture wars."
So his discernment gets condensed into "soft communitarianism" versus "consistent-ethic lite." He finds no hard line around the communities on one side, and on the other, tastes a kind of "warm beer" flavor to commitments. Regular mass-goers are more sharply divided and definable on both sides. Bole can see why the Republican Party is busy wooing the "soft communitarians" to the "consistent-ethic lite" (or even "heavy") pole, where the votes are. The strategy is hardly subtle, and many will watch it unfold.
Do these "soft" and "lite" identifications threaten to divide the church, or do they simply reveal how Americans-in-groups live? We'll see.