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Stereotypes and realities in Catholicism

By Peter McDonough


Writing about Catholicism started out as a sideline for me. Most of my research as a political scientist was about the breakup of authoritarian regimes in places like Brazil and Spain.

Then, in what indulgent colleagues called “Peter’s midlife crisis,” I began inquiring into changes in the Catholic church. Soon a book was published about the American Jesuits during the years leading up to, and immediately following, Vatican II. Later, another one came out comparing Jesuits and former Jesuits. Ten years after that, I finished a book about the emergence of reform groups in the American church. In hindsight, the books form a trilogy, following a kind of arc. The first focuses on priests, the second on priests and ex-priests, and the third on lay people.

So, with decreasingly frequent excursions into political science, my commitment to academic convention became something of a sidebar itself. The process, which began in the early 1980s, unfolded across three decades.

As an amateur in the field, I quickly came across a couple of stereotypes that, for all my efforts to disprove them, have turned out (with some tweaking) to be true. One is the notion that the Catholic church is obsessed with sex. The second is that Catholics take less of an active role in church affairs than their counterparts from other denominations.

blessing male priest femaleThe fixation-with-sex business comes in several parts. What makes Catholicism nearly distinctive among the major Western religions is the close connection between authority and gender. Males rule. Women are second-class disciples. Demonstrating that the arrangement is dysfunctional is incidental to a conviction that, were women to be admitted into the upper reaches of power, the institutional hierarchy would fall apart.

A variation on this theme is the permanence of a male-female polarity. Sexual identities are binary and fixed. The ideal of an “androgynous Christ” gained prominence in Catholic spiritual thinking during recent years, especially among priests searching for ways to be “all things to all men.” But sexual fluidity, the practice of homosexuality, and the like are definite no-nos.

The reason behind both these rigid perspectives is that traditional sexual standards represent a belief in a universal moral code, immune to local and historical variations. They form a bulwark against relativism. They are the foundations of what used to be called The Great Chain of Being, a religious concept denoting a strict, hierarchical order for all matter and life. They partake of what is still called, in some quarters, the natural law. None of this is altogether peculiar to Catholicism, as the mindset appears in other Abrahamic religions. But it attains a particularly fierce intensity in the church.

At this point we need to introduce an important “yes, but.” The code as outlined is prescribed by the church but less and less adhered to by Catholics themselves. It carries more weight among the old, and among swathes of new immigrants, than other sectors of the faithful who differ little from their non-Catholic peers in matters of contraception, divorce, and so on. Nevertheless, the inherited code is not a mere formality. The fear is that undoing it would result in the collapse of the Catholic enterprise, just as mainstream Protestant denominations have lost members apparently in direct proportion to their liberalizing ventures.

As for the Catholic deficit in participation, I started out with the hunch that this, too, was an urban legend. But it isn’t. While the data could be more abundant, such studies that exist on the subject converge on the fact that Catholics tend to be generally less engaged in their parishes than Protestants are in their congregations. They also tend to donate less money to their church.

Why is this the case? It is not as if participation has held up across non-Catholic denominations while shrinkage has been confined to Catholics. On the contrary, like non-religious voluntary associations everywhere, many religious groups have lost membership and enthusiasm.

As far as we can tell, the participatory lag of Catholics lies in the fact that they started at a lower baseline before the general downturn in social capital. Catholics are accustomed to hierarchy within the church. The habit is part of their culture. Parishes are not “congregations,” with all the schools-of-democracy resonance that term entails. Even if some of them are reluctant to defend deference as a matter of principle, the faithful have other things to worry about. Polling regularly shows that more consultative designs for church life are increasingly popular among Catholics. But this has not prompted a groundswell of reform movements.

Again, the data could be better. There seems to be no connection between submissiveness inside the church, for example, and the rates of participation that Catholics show in politics, business, and other secular activities. It is not as if Catholics carry their relative passivity inside the church over to outside spheres. This compartmentalization, if that’s what it is, remains a bit of a puzzle.

The greater puzzle is whether we are anywhere near a tipping point with regard to adherence to hierarchy and sexuality in Catholicism. The culture of the church is still reminiscent of those dark Victorian interiors, cool and slightly damp, the heavy drapes drawn to protect the furnishings, the tapestries, the carpets, the ancestral paintings. The lace curtains are scrupulously clean. The people themselves, especially the women, look a little pale, as they are supposed to, in homage to a civilization that prized a certain pallor as a sign of non-exposure to work outside in the sun.

Peter McDonough has written two books on the Jesuits and others on democratization in Brazil and Spain. His most recent book is The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church. He lives in Glendale, California. Read his previous blog post: “Creativity in the social sciences.”

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Image credit: Blessing. Stained glass in Catholic church in Dublin showing a priest giving his blessing. The stained-glass windows are by the famous artist, William Early, who died during the commission. © junak via iStockphoto.

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