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What Catholics Actually Believe

Andrew Sullivan, who is Catholic himself and disagrees with many of the church’s position, points to a new survey of American Catholics that finds that most of them simply don’t recognize the authority of the church on most issues.

Large majorities say that a person can be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday (78 percent), without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control (78 percent), without their marriage being approved by the church (72 percent), and without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on divorce and remarriage (69 percent).

This is not surprising at all. Catholics don’t behave any differently on these issues than any other group, despite the church’s stern teachings on them. They also don’t believe much in doctrines like transubstantiation. I suspect they remain Catholic mostly out of habit and kinship. It’s what they are used to, it’s what they think they’re supposed to do. But they don’t really believe most of it. And I suspect the same is true of most Protestants as well.

Comments

  1. raven says

    The Catholic laity have had centuries to learn to ignore the priests.

    The members pretend that the priests have something worthwhile to say. They priests pretend that anyone is actually taking them seriously.

    It’s all don’t ask, don’t tell.

    PS The Catholic church in Ireland recently did a survey and found the same thing. Half of all Irish Catholics don’t believe in hell.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    most of them simply don’t recognize the authority of the church on most issues.

    This is particularly interesting in light of the history of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Acceptance of the leadership of the Bishop of Rome (= the Pope) is what has differentiated the Holy Roman Catholic Church from other Christian sects throughout the history of Christianity.

  3. raven says

    In recent years, 1/3 of all US Catholics have left their church. This is 20 million people. An astonishingly large number.

    The US church has totally ignored this. According to their fake numbers, they were up 1% last year. They only count baptisms and do not even let people defect on their books.

  4. regexp says

    Having been raised Catholic – my family just goes to church because that is what they do. Its more social than anything else and they never bought into most of the Church’s teachings. However – having attended the confirmation of one of my nephews recently – I’ve noticed the Church I grew up in being more evangelical than I remember (I even taught Sunday school). The priests I remember wouldn’t of had an issue with me being gay – the priest that I talked to cringed a bit when I made a sarcastic remark back when he asked me when I was going to get married.

  5. Phillip IV says

    A new survey of American Catholics that finds that most of them simply don’t recognize the authority of the church on most issues.

    Let me guess – only a few recognize the authority of the church on all issues, a much larger number recognizes it on none, and the large group left recognizes it only when it concerns other people, not themselves.

    raven @ #1:

    Half of all Irish Catholics don’t believe in hell.

    The other half is married. Bddm-tsh!

  6. eric says

    …they were up 1% last year. They only count baptisms and do not even let people defect on their books.

    Talk about sending mixed signals! You have to obey us and fulfill all these requirements to be Catholic. Except when we do a census, then you don’t.

    I’m thinking folks like Sullivan have a pretty strong point here, if they choose to use it. ‘If you count me as Catholic because I’m baptized, then you must not consider all this other stuff absolutely necessary to be Catholic. If you did, you wouldn’t count me as Catholic.’

  7. raven says

    I’ve noticed the Church I grew up in being more evangelical than I remember…

    There are fundie Catholics. They are a lot like fundie Protestants.

    They are similiar enough that they can steal each other’s ideas, beliefs, and propaganda.

    They are similar enough to the fundie Moslems that both xian groups can steal from them and vice versa.

    What is the difference between fundie Protestants, fundie Catholics, and fundie Moslems? Not much really. Except they frequently hate each other.

  8. jacobfromlost says

    It’s not very often that I’ve ended up debating a Catholic on the net regarding faith. Almost all the times I can remember, they say it is a personal faith. That’s usually when I says something like, “It doesn’t seem like you take the church’s teachings that seriously. Do you REALLY think the cracker is flesh and the wine is blood as the church teaches, or do you just take that as symbolic?”

    Ninety-nine percent of the time, the conversation ends there and the person never responds. I had ONE person respond, saying it was literally flesh and blood. I said it was not. She said DNA tests could be done on it to confirm. I said that she had to be kidding. She disappeared for a day, and came back with a definition of “substance” which she said meant that they looked like wine and crackers, tastedly like wine and crackers, could be tested and shown to be wine and crackers, but deep, deep down where god changed what they were–they were flesh and blood.

    Good grief. (Why is good to drink god’s blood and eat his flesh again? Once again: good grief.)

  9. raven says

    Source for the exodus from the RCC. It uses numbers from Catholic sources.

    Vancouver Sun Douglas Todd

    The Catholic church is losing huge numbers of members. If ex-Catholics were their own denomination, they would make up the third largest denomination in the United States, according to The National Catholic Reporter. Canadians have much to learn from a powerful new study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which shows that one out every 10 Americans is now an ex-Catholic. {Scroll through my take on more Catholic church issues.}

    “Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening,” writes Jesuit Father Thomas Reese continues

  10. says

    Which begs the question…How does “The Church” maintain its power given this wholesale reduction in participation? This phenomenon must also map out onto a serious reduction of tithing.

  11. says

    It would be interesting to know how many North American Catholics currently believe in elements of Rapture theology, despite it not being a Catholic teaching. After all it’s a fairly well known set of ideas here, whether you’re a member of a sect that preaches that nonsense or not.

  12. azportsider says

    “Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why.” I suspect they’ll want to know when they start running out of children to abuse.

  13. robnyny says

    In my extended Catholic family, only two members are still Catholic, one over 80, and the other a teacher at a Catholic school who has to remain Catholic to keep her job. My father died convinced he was going directly to hell because he had never been able to afford to buy an annulment from his first wife.

  14. abb3w says

    Eh; I can see how it might not be the most immediate concern of the Bishops. One large chunk is those who go Protestant, which remains roughly balanced by conversions going the other direction. The bulk of the rest of the RC loss is the same hemmoraging to the “Nones” that the protestants are facing. Unlike the Protestants, however, US Catholicism is holding near steady, in part because of immigration. (Not just Mexican Catholics; also Phillipine and other SE Asian sources.)

  15. says

    The “cafeteria” Catholic has been the rule rather than the exception for many years. The 1968 encyclical on birth control (Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae) was the final straw for many, although not everyone formally left the Church over it — they just accepted disobedience as the norm, while retaining nominal membership in an organization at the center of their family culture and social milieu.

    The crack-down on Catholic universities and seminars by Rome has had the effect of creating a new breed of Catholic priest — young, devout, and on fire with old-fashioned doctrine. They are received with gladsome cries by elderly Catholics who pine after the Latin mass and by young parishioners who are impossible to distinguish from right-wing fundamentalists except for their devotion (as opposed to antipathy) to Rome. The result could be a major melt-down in the ranks of nominal Catholics and the creation of a much tinier and more close-minded religious sect (which those remaining in it will adore, since the slackers have been driven out). The next pope will probably get to preside over this collapse.

  16. Gregory says

    Transubstantiation — pretty much all sacramental theology, in fact — make perfectly good sense. IF you are familiar with the neo-Platonic beliefs that underlayed nearly all the philosophy of Imperial Rome.

    Romans made a distinction between forma or form — the material, measurable, objective qualities of a thing — and substantia or substance — the immaterial, immeasurable, subjective qualities of a thing. Take two men, one a handsome young noble and the other an elderly freeman hardened by years of manual labor. Both conscientiously perform their civic duties, both are devout, both are liberal with what they have: different forms, similar substance. The noble has a twin brother, but he is a lazy, greedy drunkard given to wanton debauchery: the noblemen have similar form, but very different substances.

    This is why Catholics talk of transubstantiation, a change in the immaterial, immeasurable and subjective qualities, rather than transformation, a change in the material, measureable and objective qualities. The cracker doesn’t change its form into human flesh; it changes its substance. The difference between form and substance also explains other sacraments: original sin is a “stain” on the human substance that baptism washes away; confirmation, ordination and marriage all change a person’s substance without changing the form, sin “warps” the substance and confession “unwarps” it, and so on. All in all, a very convenient way to explain invisible, immaterial, immeasurable “miracles”, you have to admit.

    For the first couple of centuries, Christian theologians almost always had a Roman education, meaning they had been indoctrinated to this worldview. It is not surprising that it became embedded in their writings. But this division between form and substance went out of popular fashion centuries ago, and has steadily lost ground as empiricism (first described, interestingly enough, by Plato’s student, Aristotle) arose and developed into the scientific method. The result is that what was once a logical extension of the common view of how the universe was put together now seems ridiculous.

  17. ambulocetacean says

    My Catholic mother is a feminist who crammed birth control pills through most of the ’70s and ’80s. But when my father left her for another woman she said she would never get married again unless the church granted her an annulment. The priests refused her – sanctimonious fucking arseholes — but when she eventually met a new bloke she went and got married in some kind of innocuous, lukewarm Protestant church.

    She still considers herself a big Catholic. She was excited about Ratzinger’s invitation to disaffected Anglicans to come over to the Catholic church, until I pointed out that the Anglicans he was reaching out to were misogynists, homophobes and sundry troglodytes. She works in child protection but she had a newspaper poster of Ratzinger up on her wall until we had a bit of a discussion about his covering-up of child rape. I don’t enjoy bursting her bubble all the time (OK, I do — I have issues too), but somebody’s gotta do it.

    Clearly, my dear old Mum’s been doing a lot of picking and choosing. But it seems as though, in her mind at least, her devotion to the Catholic church has never wavered.

    Perhaps most Catholics — and perhaps most other religious people — are just good at picking and choosing. Perhaps they think that cognitive dissonance is just a bit of tinnitus.

  18. raven says

    One large chunk is those who go Protestant, which remains roughly balanced by conversions going the other direction.

    That isn’t happening.

    That 20 million is a net loss far as I can tell.

  19. Randomfactor says

    I’ve long thought that there will eventually be a North American Catholic Church split off from the RCC over such things as the ordination of women, celibacy, birth control, and the like.

    Then again, that’s pretty much what the Episcopalians are.

  20. says

    But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening,”

    I’m sure the US bishops know exactly why it is happening, and don’t have to spend any money to find out. They can’t talk about it because they don’t have the power to address the causes. The Pope alone has that power, and believe me, he’s on it — the official response is to give up on the uppity secular West, and concentrate their recruitment efforts on people who are less able to see through their BS or stand on their own feet against their injustices.

  21. D. C. Sessions says

    I suspect they remain Catholic mostly out of habit and kinship.

    Much like the majority of Jews: MOTT (member of the tribe) is a common identification. Social connections, often in the congregation, with no particular religious content. For Jews there’s the added benefit of group defenses against being pestered by Christians.

  22. Jim says

    Seems to me that Sullivan wants to keep his cake and eat it too: it’s not like the church just invented hierarchy, its pro-life platform, or its position on marriage. His complaint is rather like accepting a car and then complaining that it is red. If you don’t like red cars then you shouldn’t have accepted one.

    As to Sullivan, this last easter the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hosted the well established Hunky Jesus contest at Doleres Park, a few blocks from where I live. The contest is a lot of fun and the Sisters give the proceeds to charity. A contestant by the name and costume of Jesus Fucking Christ won. The costume had a Jeebus attached to him in front, so the guy looked liked he was fucking Jeebus as he walked. It was one of the funniest costumes I have ever seen. The crowd loved it. Sullivan did not.

    Sullivan wrote some idiot criticism about the contest and was essentially in a snit, pissy queens like Sullivan get like that. The sisters were being crude and disrespectful to catholics he alleged or some other whine. And now that same pissy idiot queen is complaining about the church: Girlfriend! make up your fucking mind. No one is forcing you to be catholic and no one is forcing you to participate in hunky Jesus.

    The Sisters, who raise a lot of charity money through many events, replied to Sullivan brilliantly.

  23. eric says

    Gregory @17:

    This is why Catholics talk of transubstantiation, a change in the immaterial, immeasurable and subjective qualities, rather than transformation, a change in the material, measureable and objective qualities.

    Sounds like you are saying that transubstantiation is like musical quality – purely in the eye of the beholder.

    I’m fine with that. But I suspect the ‘official RCC’ disagrees with you about it being a purely subjective phenomenon.

    As far as I can tell, the RCC position is a bit of trying to have its wafer and eat it too – they claim subjectivity as a defense to skeptic arguments, but then claim some objective change to the wafer itself (not just the wafer’s import to the ritual-goer) when talking to believers.

  24. dingojack says

    Jim (#23) -
    “Seems to me that Sullivan wants to keep his cake cracker and eat it too…”
    FIFY :)
    (just don’t get beaten up by the church wardens, PZ will get rather cranky)

    Don’t catholics have a apocalyptic mythos of their own? Or is only Protestants who do the pre-millennial/post-millennial hokey-cokey?
    Dingo

  25. ericriley says

    Do I count as ‘Catholic’ even though I’m an atheist? I haven’t been officially excommunicated…

  26. dingojack says

    eric – “Sounds like you are saying that transubstantiation is like musical quality… ”
    ‘”Transubstatiation – the musical!” Brought to the stage by the makers of ‘Glee’ and ‘Hairspray’, 2012′s next big Broadway hit!’*
    Dingo
    —-
    * and you wonder what the Mayans thought would bring the world to an end? :)

  27. ambulocetacean says

    Don’t catholics have a apocalyptic mythos of their own?

    I’m sorry to say that after 13 years of Catholic schooling I haven’t a clue.

    But I do remember my mother once telling me that when the tribulation or whatever it is comes we have to lock ourselves inside the house and not open the door even if it sounds like my younger brother is begging to get in because it will only be Satan pretending to be my younger brother so we will be tricked into letting him in, and then he will drag us to hell or something.

    Not sure how sound her theology was, though.

  28. The Christian Cynic says

    But they don’t really believe most of it. And I suspect the same is true of most Protestants as well.

    As a generalization about the wide variety of Protestant sects, I highly doubt this is true. The big difference here, in my opinion, is the less structured and rigid hierarchies in Protestants (where there is any hierarchy at all) versus the strict chain of command in Catholicism. Additionally, there’s not a strong pull toward denominational loyalty within most Protestant families (at least that I’ve known), at least not like there is with Catholicism. If anything, you might be able to say that there are Christians writ large who don’t believe all of the things that are traditionally ascribed to Christianity (e.g. original sin, eternal damnation, the virgin birth), but I’m not sure that the percentages would be so large if you looked at the issue as a whole.

  29. steve oberski says

    ericriley says:

    Do I count as ‘Catholic’ even though I’m an atheist?

    You look like an atheist, taste like an atheist, could be tested and shown to be atheist, but deep, deep down where god changed what you are – you’re a catlick.

    Or so I’ve been told by an expert in the field (my very RC mother).

  30. steve oberski says

    @eric

    Sounds like you are saying that transubstantiation is like musical quality – purely in the eye of the beholder.

    Not sure the analogy works, music has a physical reality, i.e. sound waves moving through the air impinging on the ear resulting in the perception.

    There are no measurable physical attributes to transubstantiation (hence the miracle status), it’s all internally generated.

  31. whheydt says

    Re; #25 (Dingojack) said:

    “(just don’t get beaten up by the church wardens, PZ will get rather cranky)”

    Yes…getting pounded on with pipes would make me cranky, too.

    –W. H. Heydt

    Old Used Programmer

  32. Gregory says

    @eric #24 – To the Romans, forma and substantia were real characteristics; even though substance was immaterial, it could still be evaluated and judged. The schools of Roman philosphy differed largely in how this evaluation was done.

    “Subjective” is my own judgement of substance and does not reflect the Roman attitude.

  33. joeina2 says

    I know i’ll catch some flak for this, but it needs to be said: how can this help us make a more progressive world? I submit the following.

    People, just like the laity of the middle ages, wants to know that there will be some retribution for evil things and rewards for morality, even for those who might escape their just rewards in this life. People don’t want to face their own mortality or that of their loved ones. At least not on a philosophical level. So they have a loving god which will grant them these things. As science has eroded the Church’s (or whatever religious body’s) monopoly on reality, people listen to their authority less and less. But the same desire for a loving god remains.

    How much could progressive movements advance their causes by showing people that most people are like them: they have Jesus without being submissive to external authority. They can retain their loving god without retaining the piecemeal assembly of moral values which is used to subjugate “others”. Like most people, hell can’t be used as a truncheon to beat them into line, because like most people, they don’t think hell exists. I know so many Christians who don’t actually care about people’s sexuality, but they’re afraid homosexuals will go to hell.

    The larger point being: i feel as though the church/preachers/religious leaders maintain their authority by shouting “they want to get rid of Jesus/whatever god” and galvanize the people to their side based on that fear, building what is actually false support for their own moral agendas. So if we show the lay people that most of them don’t agree with/follow the moral prescriptions, but still believe in Jesus, we can destroy the authority of the church to scare the people into backing their moral vendettas, by destroying the church’s claim that “its all or nothing”.

  34. Dennis N says

    So if we show the lay people that most of them don’t agree with/follow the moral prescriptions, but still believe in Jesus

    Or we could just show them that there is no reason to believe a supernatural Jesus ever existed. Why sugarcoat it?

  35. eric says

    Gregory – To the Romans, forma and substantia were real characteristics; even though substance was immaterial, it could still be evaluated and judged. The schools of Roman philosphy differed largely in how this evaluation was done.

    Good for them. Tell you what, this is pretty easy to experimentally check. You get out your Ortec substantia detector, let’s see if a wafer registers the same before and after consecration.

    Your hypothesis is that it will register different after consecration. My hypothesis is that you don’t have a substantia detector because the whole concept is at best ill-thought out, and at worst, an intentional attempt at obfuscating the fact that the mass ceremony produces no change beyond what any other ceremony from any religion does for its participants.

  36. Gregory says

    @eric #40 – I never said I believed any of this myself; trust me, I do not. I was only pointing out that there was, at one time, a basis for doctrines like transubstantiation. They were not pulled out of the air by deluded fanatics; they were the work of thoughtful, educated men working within the only framework they had. I have no doubt that, in 2000 years, our current understanding of how the universe is put together will seem just as ridiculous, unsophisticated and naive.

  37. Modusoperandi says

    Gregory “I have no doubt that, in 2000 years, our current understanding of how the universe is put together will seem just as ridiculous, unsophisticated and naive.”
    And they’ll still be pushing back against His Holiness, RoboPope 0010110 IV.

  38. scifi1 says

    @ambulocetacean

    You o#e me a ne# ke<bo*rd!!! I was enjo<ing th*t coffee!!!!!!!!!!!

    Perhaps they think that cognitive dissonance is just a bit of tinnitus.

  39. eric says

    Gregory @41: They were not pulled out of the air by deluded fanatics; they were the work of thoughtful, educated men working within the only framework they had.

    I still disagree. RCC theologians had a choice on how to treat transubstantiation. They could’ve gone with symbolic meaning. Its not like their position is even original to Christianity – the RCC’s current ‘real change’ approach was only codified in 1376, long after the gnostics, the split with the Orthodox faiths, the split with the Copts, etc…

    IMO what it looks like is this: middle ages RCC scholars did some classic apologetics. They pulled the conclusion they wanted out of the air, then went back through historical documentation from early theologians and philosophers and cherry picked the bits that backed it up.

    I have no doubt that, in 2000 years, our current understanding of how the universe is put together will seem just as ridiculous, unsophisticated and naive.

    Unlikely. Accurate models don’t disappear just because their premises are overturned. Note how science still teaches Newtonian Mechanics even though QM shows it to be fundamentally wrong on the microscopic scale. That is because it remains useful on the macroscopic scale. Analogously, if some new theory comes along and shows QM is fundamentally wrong, we’ll probably still use it for basic particle interactions. The whole (Kuhnian concept) of radical shifts in science is deeply flawed; in real science, what happens is not so much wholesale change as keeping the past useful bits and adding new stuff on to them. QM explains what NM cannot. And [Future X] will hopefully explain what QM cannot.

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