Why Catholics Stay

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For decades now, the Roman Catholic Church has been alarmed at the rise of new religions worldwide, particularly evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals, which threaten to draw tens of millions away from older Catholic loyalties. Recently in Rome, the German Bishops' Conference organized a high profile conference on how the church can respond to this potential threat. (Full disclosure: I was of the presenters).

At this gathering, like so many others, scholars asked questions that have been familiar since Max Weber founded the scientific study of religion over a century ago: just why do people join new faiths, especially those enthusiastic sects that make such intense demands on their time and energy? What makes people convert to life-changing new faiths? And what decides whether those new movements succeed or fail?

But in all this emphasis on conversion, on novel and insurgent movements, we may be missing a very important point. We can come up with plenty of reasons why people found or join new religions -- but why, in so many cases, do people not change their faith traditions? Why, in short, do they stay the same?

That might seem like an odd question, given the huge volume of available works on new religions and religious founders, compared to the handful on religious continuity or stability. But that imbalance largely reflects the interests of scholars, who naturally find much more to say about the new and daring rather than the old and stolid. Look for instance at the number of books published on the innovators and radicals of the Reformation era, rather than the people who were quite content to let the church march steadily along as it had always done. In fact, though, tradition and continuity must have some appeal, or else the Roman Catholic Church would not still be, by far, the largest single religious organization on the planet. (Among Christians, its runner-up is the Orthodox church, another body scarcely known for wild innovation for its own sake.)

Look also at the religious scene in the contemporary United States. As everyone knows, the Roman Catholic Church has for decades suffered horrible scandals, chiefly sexual in nature, and prelates and priests have often shown themselves far removed from the political and cultural attitudes of many of the faithful. Moreover, the American religious marketplace offers countless rival opportunities for any disaffected believers. Obviously, then, Catholic numbers should in theory have collapsed to vanishing point over the past decade or so -- as they clearly have not. While there certainly have been defections, millions of Catholics turn up to services regularly despite any suspicions and discontents. Why do they stay?

One answer of course is that the activities of any faith at an institutional level do not necessarily reflect ordinary life as it is seen from the grass roots. It is easy enough for scholars or journalists to write about a church's public activities and controversies, its scandals and policy statements, but those have little to do with the real reasons people belong to their parishes or congregations. They identify with the church partly for reasons of family heritage and tradition, sometimes from ethnic identification or community loyalty. And however much this violates the church's theology, Catholicism is in practice highly congregational in nature. In their parishes, believers find friends and relatives, and support from a kind of extended family. The parish is home.

So strong are these ties that it is difficult to imagine just how horribly provocative an official church statement must be in order to force them out of the institution. Ordinary Catholics will rather stay and wait for the departure of the prelate in question, while maintaining the day-to-day life of the parish community.

Of course, people do defect on occasion, but only rarely over political or theological issues. They are much more likely to leave because the parish in question has ceased to function as a working community, possibly because of a disastrous shortage of clergy, or a singularly malevolent priest. Movement is also more probable when some other institution offers a more appealing facsimile of community, fellowship and family. This is largely the appeal of Pentecostal churches in Latin America, with their much more numerous and accessible clergy, and their powerful sense of compañerismo, fellowship.

In the United States, similarly, individuals may change churches out of theological convictions, but they are much more likely to do so because of a change in personal relationships, a marriage or divorce. Change is also likely when a rival denomination offers powerful practical temptations in the form of an outstanding children's ministry or singles' group.

I am certainly not trying to reduce religious loyalty to worldly matters of community or family identification. Of course, people belong chiefly because of the spiritual fulfillment they find there, which may or may not follow the church's official theologies. I recall a wise remark of Fr. Andrew Greeley, a writer with whom I have had more than one battle in past years. Sit an average bunch of Catholics down and you might be horrified by how many errors they make in summarizing the Church's doctrines. At the same time, though, you will find them absolutely tuned to a particular set of narratives and images, of abundantly Catholic ways of thinking and imagining. Or as he summarized it perfectly: "They stay for the stories." When those stories also incorporate the traditions of communities and ethnic groups, the resulting package is enormously strong, to the point that people really will die for this faith.

In recent years, journalists have often asked, in effect, what the Catholic church can do to save itself, and the desired answer usually involves issues of policy, about transparency on abuse cases, about attitudes to sexuality and gender. Those are all crucial matters, but the underlying assumption is that people belong to religious institutions chiefly because of its official attitudes and statements. In the vast majority of cases, I suggest, they don't. The problem is that, as yet, we really don't have a scholarship of why people stay.

So here's a proposal for a whole new academic discipline: the study of staying put.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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