Catholics and American Public Life: Problems and Possibilities

By: Maureen Day

March 11, 2021

Responding to: Joe Biden and Catholicism in U.S. Politics

Catholics and American Public Life: Problems and Possibilities

The relationship between Catholicism and American public life is complicated. In his Public Catholicism, historian David J. O’Brien describes how various social forces have shaped the way Catholics have understood the relationship between faith and public life. He names three “styles”—republican, immigrant, and evangelical—to make sense of the varying ways Catholics participated in American public life from 1750 to 1960. O’Brien describes in great depth the ways each of these styles created a particular sense of what it meant to be Catholic and American; all three styles had something to say about both of these identities. However, each also fostered a strong sense of dualism in the lives of Catholics; the faithful could not simultaneously be both American and Catholic.

As I discuss in my book, Catholic Activism Today, contemporary American Catholics are approaching public life in a much more integrated way, which I call the discipleship style. Three social shifts have given rise to this fourth style of public Catholicism: increased geographic mobility, greater individual moral authority, and strong Catholic representation among the middle and upper classes. By dint of these three shifts, when discerning how to engage public life, contemporary Catholics are not as quick to become involved with the efforts of their parish as they were in the past. Instead, they tend to volunteer with a local organization that aligns with their own interests and talents, allowing quick and personalized entry into public life.

When discerning how to engage public life, contemporary Catholics are not as quick to become involved with the efforts of their parish as they were in the past.

But as Catholics become involved in secular organizations as Catholics, they need to more intentionally integrate their faith with their public commitments. Discipleship style Catholics do this through small faith communities, such as JustFaith Ministries, Opus Dei, or Sant’Egidio. These Catholics gather regularly for prayer and formation in small groups and then bring this renewed spiritual imagination to their volunteer commitments. Through small group support that enables them to see religious meaning in their everyday lives, they grow in both their civic and religious sensibilities and are finally able to integrate their American and Catholic identities.

Now, I admit that this is only a partial picture. The majority of Catholics are not actively wondering how to live their faith and citizenship side-by-side. Sociologist Michele Dillon and I are analyzing findings from our national survey of over 1,500 Catholics. The data show that fewer Catholics are “high commitment” Catholics (20% of our sample) compared to when William D’Antonio and his team began these surveys in the 1980s (27% of respondents were high commitment), revealing a waning religious identity. In addition, most Catholics do not connect their faith and politics in any meaningful way. When asked whether religious beliefs affected how they voted in the 2016 presidential election, a full 86% said their religious beliefs played no role. Although discipleship style organizations are having a large impact on the Catholics they reach, these numbers show that they reach relatively few.

There is good reason to believe that most Catholics’ political positions are driven more by party than by faith. Catholic Democrats are more likely to be supportive of the Church’s teaching on immigration and poverty than Republicans, and Catholic Republicans are more supportive of Church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage. Data from the Pew Research Center corroborate these findings when asking about abortion and a United States-Mexico border wall, with Catholic Democrats and Republicans looking very similar to respondents from their party nationally.

There is good reason to believe that most Catholics’ political positions are driven more by party than by faith.

These two pictures indicate that there is not a monolithic understanding of Catholicism and public life. There are (at least) two Catholic experiences. One contends that Catholics’ faith forms the basis of their lives, and they strive to better understand how to manifest this in their public selves, from donations to community engagement to voting; this would describe a relatively small number of highly engaged, deeply committed Catholics who, qualitatively, articulate well a public Catholicism. And there is a second experience in which faith is not a central aspect of people’s identity, playing little to no role in how they conduct aspects of their lives that are not explicitly religious; quantitatively, this is the dominant experience in contemporary American Catholicism.

What does this mean for Catholicism now, especially with the election of President Biden? In Postsecular Catholicism, Michele Dillon discusses important shifts within Catholicism’s approach to public life. Historically, the magisterium acted as the moral voice within American Catholicism, and lay Catholics were more readily receptive to these teachings. Things have changed. Today, the magisterium is perceived as a moral voice, and Catholics listen to the hierarchy as one voice among a variety of experts. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for Catholicism. Church leaders can no longer rely upon their office to shape people’s imaginations; now they must persuade on the basis of providing sound, cogent arguments. Yet, in providing a convincing case, they can exercise influence beyond Catholicism, becoming simultaneously a public voice and a Catholic voice. And this points a way forward, with possibilities for this moment.

Today, the magisterium is perceived as a moral voice, and Catholics listen to the hierarchy as one voice among a variety of experts. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for Catholicism.

How can Catholic leaders, both lay and ordained, shape Catholic and public imagination? My in-depth study of participants of JustFaith Ministries demonstrates that organizations of the discipleship style provide Catholics with new religious tools so that they may bring their faith to public life in a consciously Catholic way. They further have the ability, if encouraged by their parish leadership, to transform their parishes into more prayerful, engaged, and relational communities of worship. They become evangelists, inviting friends to animate their world with the values of the Gospel. And these Catholics tend to think beyond the red-blue binary, transcending American political categories of thinking. For example, although the majority of JustFaith Ministries respondents identify as Democrat, they are very concerned with the abortion issue. They begin with their faith, and bring this to public life.

Bishops have a distinct role. They are the most readily recognized voice of Catholicism, and their influence comes not only in what they say but also in how they say it. When bishops regularly refer to disconnect or overlap with any party, the conversation remains somewhat embedded in the political imagination. But when they discuss care for the vulnerable, a concern for the common good, a desire for a more active and participatory democracy, and advocacy for human dignity—and embed these issues in centuries of religious thought—they invite us to consider the ways our social issues can be informed by spiritual wisdom.

Further, bishops and other leaders can frame problems and solutions in ways that reveal their religious significance, stripping issues of any partisan flavor they may carry when seen merely as political issues. Finally, leaders speaking a language of faith allow the public to plumb the depth of an issue and discover its moral significance.

Bishops and other leaders can frame problems and solutions in ways that reveal their religious significance, stripping issues of any partisan flavor.

Carefully considering how we understand, discuss, and manifest our faith in public life—individually and collectively—will point us to a more intentionally Catholic way of shaping our Church and world in the current moment.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.

comments powered by Disqus