With the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of a new pope, amidst what seems an unending turmoil over sex abuse by priests, pollsters have understandably thought this a good moment to inquire about American Catholics’ attitudes on religious matters. The results describe a major disconnection between the Roman Catholic Church and its American adherents.
A New York Times survey conducted in February found, for example, that by roughly two to one or more, self-identified Catholics favored gay marriage, women priests, priests marrying, artificial means of birth control, access to abortion, and the death penalty – all anathema to the Church. Most said that the Church and its American bishops are “out of touch” with the needs of Catholics (although though most also said that parish priests are in touch).
The media are attending to the events and crises of the moment. It is important to understand that the alienation between the Church in Rome and Catholics in America has deep historical and cultural roots.
When Catholic immigrants starting arriving in the U.S. in great numbers in the 19th century, they were tightly connected to the Church and severely estranged from American Protestants. Tensions over religion and other cultural issues were so great that they often flared into violence. Protestants suspected Catholics of all sorts of depravities and of being far more loyal to the Vatican than to the nation.
In 1834, a mob burned down a convent in Massachusetts. In 1844, riots between Protestants and Irish Catholics in Philadelphia left thirty or more dead in the streets. The charge that the Democratic Party was too close to the Church – e.g., “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” – played an important role in American elections. The Church organized a vast set of parallel institutions in America – hospitals, newspapers, colleges, but most critically, parochial schools – to insulate Catholics from the influences of American Protestantism.
Yet, the forces of assimilation were strong. The demand, for example, for more democracy in parishes forced accommodations early on. “Free thinking” American Catholics irritated Rome, such that in the 1890s, Pope Leo condemned “Americanism” – “the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world.”
Fundamentally, the Church encountered the great contradiction that other Old World faiths as well, notably Judaism, encountered in America: Religion rooted in a community defined by birth and regulated by authorities confronted religion based on individual choice in a faith “market” of voluntary congregations.
Thus, 78 percent of American Catholics asked by the Times poll, “On difficult moral questions, which are you more likely to follow – the teachings of the Pope, or your conscience?,” picked “conscience” — a few points more than they did when Benedict began his papacy. American voluntarism triumphant.
In the latter half of the 20th century, especially since the 1960s, the voluntaristic rebellion against the Church accelerated. The reforms deriving from the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s stirred passions and faster change. For example, the American priests and bishops tacitly yielded to their parishioners’ demands for greater freedom to divorce.
But accommodations have not kept up with the laity’s desires and the Church has been losing many adherents to other religions or to no religion at all and also losing enthusiasm among those who still remain Catholic.
In the 1970s, 13 percent of Americans aged 30-plus who had been raised as Catholics no longer declared themselves to be Catholics. In comparison, 8 percent of Americans aged 30-plus who had been raised as Protestants no longer declared themselves to be Protestant.
In the last decade, however, 28 percent of thirty-plus raised-Catholics no longer claimed to be Catholics versus 18 percent of raised-Protestants who no longer claimed to be Protestants, widening the Catholic disadvantage in dropouts from 5 to 10 points. Lapsed Catholics in the 2000s tended to become Protestants (14%) or express “no religious preference” (10%). This attrition is doubly striking because immigration from Latin America raised the number of Catholics in the U.S. substantially in the same period.
(These data are from the General Social Survey. Why look only at the 30-plus? Because people typically do not settle their religious affiliations until they have settled down, marrying and having a child. The age at which Americans do that has gotten notably older in the last 40 years, so I just focus on respondents past their twenties. By the way, for the latest numbers on Americans claiming no religion, see pdf.)
Among those Catholics who still claim affiliation, religious enthusiasm seems to have dropped sharply. The figure below shows the percentage of self-described Catholics (in purple) and Protestants (in red), aged thirty-plus, who told the GSS that they attended church “nearly every week” or more. The message is quite clear.
As the Church chooses Benedict’s replacement, it faces many hurdles in America. The sex abuse scandal is one, to be sure. But the assimilation of Catholics to American voluntarism and their estrangement from the Vatican predate those revelations. They have to do with that core contradiction between the millennium-long culture of the Church and the centuries-long culture of America.
 Dolan, “The Search for an American Catholicism,” Catholic Historical Review, 1996.
 Quoted in Tagliabue, “Are American Catholics Roman?” New York Times, June 16, 2002.
 Gallup Poll: here.
 Melissa Wilde here.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.