Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Reading Greeley

As I mentioned a while back, I checked out a copy of Andrew Greeley's The Catholic Myth from the library. The bit I read even before checking it out was enough to convince me that Greeley's writing style is intensely annoying, but he's a name in Catholic demographics and sociology, and so it seemed like since this a growing interest of mine (one that given the opportunity I'd like to have the chance to actually study and write about) I should slog through the Greeley book and see what he had to say.

Greeley's writing style (excessively self-congratulatory and short of statistical detail) continued to grate on me, but I'll run through the high-lights and low-lights of what he had to say.

Surveying Catholics
This is my biggest gripe with Catholic opinion polling and demographics such as I've seen them up to this point. Everyone seems to just ask "Are you Catholic" and if the answer is yet, go on with the survey. The polls and studies that Greeley uses follow the same pattern. This makes sense if you consider Catholicism to be a social or ethnic group, but it doesn't make sense when you're looking at a religion -- which at a rough pass of a definition is a group of believers united by a common creed, set of practices or beliefs. Thus, it seems like, beyond asking people "are you Catholic?", someone conducting a detailed survey should follow up with a series of questions about Catholic beliefs and practice in order to further segment self-identified Catholics into mass attending Catholics, Catholics who believe in the real presence, Catholics who go to confession at least once a month, Catholics who believe in papal infallibility, etc., etc.

Many of what strike me as Greeley's more unhelpful assertions derive from considering Catholics and to an extent Catholicism to simply be the sum of the views of self-identified Catholics.

On the Priesthood
Greeley may not be an orthodox Catholic, but he isn't exactly a group thinker either. He has ideas to offend both sides of the debate on the priesthood in that he favors the continuation of mandatory celibacy yet is in favor of ordaining women. (Even odder, he's in favor of a temporary priesthood or "priestcore" which would allow young people to serve as priestly celibates for a fixed term and then move on to have families. I really can't see how this one would work out on a practical basis...)

On the celibate priesthood, he thinks that mandating celibacy emphasizes that the otherwordly aspect of the priesthood -- that the priesthood is not just a job but a vocation with one foot in this world and one in the next. Celibacy gives priests a more otherworldly quality.

On women in the priesthood, Greeley's feelings are based on his studies showing increases in marital satisfaction correlated to women having close confidential relationships with their priests. He therefore theorizes that if men could have close confidential relationships with female priests, they would experience similar benefits. Theology of the priesthood aside, I'm really not sure that I buy this. Men generally do not like having "close confidential relationships" and I don't think that men in general would find a celibate female as good a soundingboard as women find a celibate male to be.

Vocation Shortage
Although he supports women priests for other reasons, Greeley says (quite rightly I think) that the "vocations crisis" is primarily a self-made crisis resulting from priests not doing any recruiting work. Greeley maintains that most priests (based on his survey in the mid seventies) feel that the hierarchy does not care about them, and that the priests' response is not to push any young men in their congregations to become priests. If, he says, the Church put half the work into getting new priests that the Air Force does into getting new pilots, we wouldn't have a problem.

There's a lot of truth to that. If parish priests were expected to give at least one serious "recruitment" sermon a quarter and to provide workshops (this is what it's like to be a priest, this is why I became a priest) for school and youth groups, I expect we'd see an immediate uptick in vocations.

I'd also be very curious (Greeley doesn't look in this direction at all) what sort of background the vocations that we are getting in the US come from. Since little active effort is being put into recruitment right now, it would be interesting to see what circumstances tend to help young (and older) men discover a vocation. I suspect that coming from families of three or more children and above average participation in the sacramental life are major factors, as is contact with good priestly roll models. It'd be interesting to do a study of current seminarians and see what sort of background factors are most common for them.

On the Youth
Greeley holds that there's "not much wrong" with the youth in today's (or rather, 1990's) Church. He says they're much like they were when he grew up in the forties. Sure, they're less likely to go to church on Sunday, but then, so are all age groups. Sure they're more likely to be promiscuous or have "live-in" relationships before marriage, but this only correlates to a "small" decrease in religious participation.

One of my big problems with this section of Greeley's book is that he was always using terms like "small" and "slight" without substantiating them. Another is that since his concept of Catholicism seems to be limited to self identification plus a certain "Catholic imagination" (a sacramental/incarnational way of looking at the world), it's hard to draw any conclusions about the relative habits of practicing vs. non-practicing young Catholics.

To me, the most interesting thing would be to correlate young Catholics beliefs and practice to their parents beliefs and practice. You'd also want to correlate behavior and vocation consideration by young Catholics with their stated beliefs, their parents' beliefs, and their education. There's some really interesting stuff I think you could dig up there.


Anonymous said...

The way the world has turned upside-down, one can hardly look at 15-year-old statistics and sociology and take it seriously. I read the book back then and it was pretty interesting, but now I can't imagine it even is worth reading, it must have very little to do with what life is like now in the church.

Darwin said...

There's devinately a lot in the book which is out of date. Not only was it written in 1990, but a lot of Greeley's studies that he cites were done in the 70s and early 80s. So I actually skipped some of his "current" sections since I figured there was no point (and I was short on time).

The main thing I was interested in was to see what kind of work he'd done in modelling out the beliefs and demographics of the Catholic population. In essentials, I don't think that's changed very much in the last fifteen years. Still, in the end, I just wasn't that impressed with the analysis. I don't know if it's that I wanted something more technical, or Greeley and I just don't see eye to eye (quite possibly both) but I think that there is a lot of valuable work to be done in understanding more clearly what the make-up of modern American Catholicism is, in a way that is essentially demographic, but still takes into account the fact that the Church is fundamentally based on sacraments and beliefs, not self-identification.

Anonymous said...

To those who consider themselves Catholic, yet do not submit to all the Church's teachings, such distinctions as Mass attendance, belief in Transubstantiation and acceptance of a non-contraceptive life-style are irrelavent. They view Catholicism in a similar manner as would a Protestant. They pick and choose what they want to believe as Truth, and make up (or borrow from elsewhere) the rest. To differentiate Catholics based upon these criteria and others that Darwin mentions in his post would be self-incriminating. So, they just "plead the 5th."