Tricia C. Bruce, Ph.D., is a sociologist whose books include Parish and Place, Faithful Revolution, Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church, and American Parishes. She is an affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society and University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Sociology. Her next book explores Americans’ abortion attitudes using a groundbreaking in-depth interview study.
Hearing then President-elect Joe Biden recite the chorus from “On Eagle’s Wings” during his victory speech transported me back to my years in youth choir at a large, multiracial Catholic parish in Texas. As the daughter of an army physician, my family moved around a lot. Church—and church choir—was often our first stop in a new town. The familiar music and friendly faces inevitably eased the discomfort wrought by relocation and my perpetual status as the new kid in town. Then and now, “On Eagle’s Wings” offered welcome and reassurance that things were moving forward, among friends.
President Biden isn’t exactly a newbie in town, nor is he first Catholic in the White House. My Irish-Catholic mom was 13 when John F. Kennedy was elected; his Catholicism ignited extra pride in an already-beloved president. Word of his shooting came when Mom was 16, in high school English class. Everything stopped; everyone stood to pray the rosary. Once home, my mom found her parents glued to the television and her dad crying—something she’d never seen before. It was one of the deepest memories of her youth.
I asked Mom recently if she felt the same pride today with our second Catholic president in the White House. With a disclaimer that this was her opinion and not that of “the Church,” she said that Biden isn’t the best example of the faith, pointing to abortion as one reason. Her appraisal was a far cry from the affectionate description of our nation’s first Catholic president, notwithstanding subsequent revelations about extramarital affairs. Biden is a Catholic, yes; but he’s not “that kind of Catholic”—not every American Catholic’s Catholic.
Biden is a Catholic, yes; but he’s not “that kind of Catholic”—not every American Catholic’s Catholic.
U.S. Catholics today are a diverse lot. Comprising just under a quarter of the overall population, Catholics are racially and ethnically diverse, split between Democrats and Republicans, and occupy a spectrum of participation from never-attending-Mass to actively engaged in local parish life. Like in the United States overall, “conservative” and “liberal” splits reverberate. Common ground is elusive, it seems, even among those who share a religious affiliation shared also by President Joe Biden. There’s “this” kind of Catholic and “that” kind of Catholic, and different evaluations of how “Catholic” any given Catholic is.
Ironically, many of the tools used by sociologists including myself to assess “religion” and “religiosity” are woefully inept to capture these cultural and political contours of identity. Measures like religious affiliation, Mass attendance, and participation in other sacraments including baptism and marriage mark some Americans as pretty darn “Catholic” and others, less so. Sociologists also gauge levels of agreement with formal Church teachings on things like birth control, abortion, death penalty, and the like (making American Catholics look quite comfortable with dissent from Catholic hierarchy). More confusing still are the consistently high proportions of U.S. Catholics who say that you can still be “Catholic”—and a “good” Catholic at that—without attending Mass every weekend or agreeing with much of what the Church teaches.
Is Biden—a self-identifying, Mass-attending, selectively dissenting Catholic—this kind or that kind of Catholic? Who is he to the rest of American Catholics looking to engage productively in domestic and foreign policy on some semblance of shared identity and common ground?
Who is Biden to the rest of American Catholics looking to engage productively in domestic and foreign policy on some semblance of shared identity and common ground?
Abortion policy showcases this challenge. I led a team of sociologists interviewing hundreds of ordinary Americans in-depth about their views on abortion, beyond simplistic “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps. Like all Americans, self-identifying Catholics hold competing values and experiences that inform and complicate their views on this fraught political and personal issue.
Far from a mirror of official positions, the American Catholics we spoke to shared an array of perspectives on abortion. Political identities, parish connections, and personal experiences mattered: Unsurprisingly, Democrats and more liberal Catholics were less opposed to abortion than Republicans and more conservative Catholics; Mass-attending Catholics were more opposed than non-attending Catholics; Catholics with close personal or interpersonal connections to abortion experiences were more likely to call themselves “pro-choice” than those whose views remained more abstract.
Far from a mirror of official positions, the American Catholics we spoke to shared an array of perspectives on abortion. Political identities, parish connections, and personal experiences mattered.
Patsy, for example, is a relatively recent convert to Catholicism who attends every Sunday unless she’s scheduled to work at the hospital. She’s 56, white, politically conservative, “Libertarian-ish,” and divorced without children.
Daniela, 33, is a Venezuelan immigrant and lifelong Catholic who attends Mass a few times a year. She’s married with two daughters, somewhat liberal, and a Democrat. Daniela identifies as part white, part Black, and typically checks the box for “Hispanic.”
Patsy dreams of a culture in which “moms can raise their children…without having to send them outside their homes.” Daniela pursued a challenging career to be a role model for her daughter, so that “nobody could ever tell her ‘You can’t have it all. You can’t have a family. You can’t have a career.’…She will be able to say, ‘Well, my mom didn’t have to pick.’”
Patsy and Daniela are familiar with the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. “God alone creates life and he creates it for a purpose,” says Patsy, who is adamantly “pro-life,” morally opposed to abortion, and wishes for it to be illegal in all circumstances. Daniela counters: “In Catholicism, you are supposed to face a judgement, like a trial…and guess what? You’re not part of it. You’re not part of my trial.” She’s “pro-choice,” not morally opposed to abortion, and supports legality under any circumstance.
Both Patsy and Daniela have had abortions themselves.
We need to get better at seeing, measuring, and understanding difference across “this” kind and “that” kind of Catholic.
Maybe Patsy is “this” kind of Catholic and Daniela, “that” kind—just as Kennedy was one kind of Catholic and Biden, another. But we don’t get to choose which kinds of Catholics engage in politics or bear the brunt of policy positions. If we want to talk about shared faith identities and participation in collective social and political landscapes, we need to get better at seeing, measuring, and understanding difference across “this” kind and “that” kind of Catholic—“this” kind and “that” kind of American—rather than pretending that we’re all the same or filtering out any hints of difference.
I wish I could say that it’s as easy as learning and singing the same hymn. It’s not. But maybe effective collaboration across difference requires asking each other better questions, making room for the new kid, and looking for signs of welcome and reassurance that things are moving forward, among friends.
Editor’s Note: Patsy and Daniela are both pseudonyms.