Expert: Catholics' Faith in Church Leadership in Motion

Newswise [United States]
February 15, 2006

Note to Journalists: A publication-quality photograph of James Davidson is available at

Newswise — Catholics' faith in God is steady, but Catholics' faith in the church is constantly in flux, especially with its leadership, according to a new book by a Purdue University sociologist.

"Catholicism in Motion: The Church in American Society," (Liguori Publications, $19.95) by sociology Professor James D. Davidson, is a series of essays about Catholicism in America. Davidson covers the priest shortage, church leadership, worship practices, wealth of parishioners, the growing immigration population and the sexual abuse scandal. His essays are based on a variety of studies conducted in the 1990s and early 21st century.

"Stability is the hallmark of the Catholic Church, but there are many reasons, especially the large number of parishioners who are disenchanted with church leadership, that affect how Americans think about and practice Catholicism," says Davidson, whose essays are based on columns he has written for 12 diocesan newspapers, including ones in Indiana, California, Maryland and Utah.

In a 1999 study discussed in the book, Davidson asked Catholics if they felt church leaders were out of touch with followers. Fifty-two percent said yes, 41 percent disagreed and 7 percent were unsure. People in the group who believed clergy were distant tended to be the most educated (including Catholic schooling), are least attached to the church and have incomes between $30,000 and $75,000. Davidson suggests that church leaders and clergy consult with representatives of the group who are not happy with leadership to learn more about their specific concerns.

"Also, keep in mind that Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly may not be happy because of the perceived distance of their priests," Davidson says. "Efforts to involve the laity may increase the number of Catholics who believe their leaders are in touch with parishioners."

However, another source of conflict is that today's generation of younger priests is not as supportive of lay people taking on the responsibilities generally reserved for priests, and this could create a greater divide, Davidson says.

"Because of the priest shortage, more parishioners have recently stepped up to help, and as a result, they often become involved in decisions specific to their parishes," Davidson says. "The men who have been most recently ordained tend to be much more traditional in their beliefs, especially on the issue of priests as the sole provider of worship and sacraments, than the older generation of priests and most lay people. This may create a great divide between official church policies and the people, and that could be ominous if ignored."

Another challenge church leaders face is the growing diversity in the church.

"Catholicism's roots in America started with a large group of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland," Davidson says. "Once again the American church is seeing a change in its diversity and cultures, especially as the Hispanic population continues to grow. Now there are new racial and cultural differences, and the priests and bishops, who are predominantly white and of European descent, are trying to minister to the different cultures. A great amount of effort is needed to avoid language or cultural misunderstandings."

Davidson says about two-thirds of Hispanics are Catholic, and it's estimated that 16 million Hispanics in America are Catholic.

While the gap between the church and parishioners may widen, there are other things that unite Catholics. Chief among these are a set of beliefs that are rooted in the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the 4th century.

"These include beliefs about Jesus' presence in the sacraments, Mary as the mother of God and concern for the poor," Davidson says. "Although church leaders and lay people may disagree on a number of other issues, such as birth control and the death penalty, they are very much on the same page when it comes to these core beliefs. That is why many Catholics believe they can disagree with some church teachings and yet remain Catholic."

Davidson also is author or co-author of "Lay Ministers and Their Spiritual Practices," "American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment," and "The Search for Common Ground: What Unites and Divides Catholic Americans."

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