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Why Sociologists Can’t Define the Catholic Tradition

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 14, 2013

To begin in the middle, the problem is that the discipline of sociology cannot make value judgments. Sociology is useful in its own way, but its own way is very limited. When it transgresses its limits, as many sociologists are wont to do, it fails utterly. That’s what I encountered in a new book by Mary Ellen Konieczny of Notre Dame entitled The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics.

This is not a review of the book. I would have to read it to do a thorough review and, upon sampling it, I am more than content to lay it aside. Konieczny studies two very different parishes, which she selected based on her assessment that they were demographically and socioeconomically similar while being different in religious orientation and practice. In other words, one parish was “traditional” and the other “progressive”. Having made these selections, the author proceeded through thirty-eight open-ended interviews with parish members over a period of nearly two years, along with additional “ethnographic field research” in order to document and portray how those in the two parishes lived out their attitudes toward work, family and moral issues in a Catholic context.

Konieczny began by wishing to shed light on how parish life might contribute to the increasing moral polarization of our culture. Reading her Preface (which centers on Joseph Cardinal Bernardin) and her Introduction (which begins with President Barack Obama’s plea for common cause at Notre Dame) would lead almost any reader to conclude that Konieczny regards this moral polarization as both unhealthy and unnecessary. There are a whole raft of value judgments at work here. But, in any case, Konieczny concludes that the different ways in which her two parishes live the Catholic tradition actually lead to a fragmentation of that tradition, and a polarization within it.

The confusion is palpable. In order to draw that conclusion, the author first would have to identify what the Catholic tradition is and then demonstrate persuasively that the parishioners in both places were committed to embracing it. Otherwise we might find that neither parish significantly embraces the Catholic tradition, or that one parish does and the other parish has largely fallen away from it, most likely through a pervasive secularization which has almost certainly been fostered by badly-formed or rebellious clergy.

If the latter should prove to be the case, what we would have is the tension between the loss of the tradition and its recovery. And it would be disingenuous to portray that tension, as Konieczny does, as a case of two Catholic groups emphasizing different aspects of the one tradition, and so tending toward the fragmentation and ultimate destruction of what it means to be Catholic. A sociologist who does not possess a deeper spiritual and moral knowledge simply cannot draw the conclusion which Konieczny draws. Worse still, such a sociologist cannot even categorize the observed behavior accurately.

After all, if I am a Catholic who decries the immorality of abortion and contraception, insists on providing my children with a sound Catholic education and carefully forming them in the faith, rejects the pervasive dominant values of the larger secular culture, and seeks professional roles for myself and my wife which are compatible with the high priority we place on our vocations as spouses and parents, then with respect to moral issues, work and family, I am clearly attempting to embrace and live the Catholic tradition. It would appear that this suits me for Konieczny’s “traditional” parish.

But if I am a Catholic who rejects the Church’s teaching on key sexual issues, sees no problem with educating my children in secular schools (whether public or private), experiences little or no moral tension with the dominant surrounding culture, and thinks it is just fine for husband, wife and children to pretty much go their own ways and do their own things, then no matter how often I talk about my desire for “spirituality”, I am not significantly embracing the Catholic tradition at all. And this suits me for Konieczny’s “progressive” parish.

The Use and Abuse of Sociology

Put in sociological terms, this book seems to be an extension of the method of the late Fr. Andrew Greeley, in which anyone who claims the name “Catholic” becomes ipso facto a legitimate representative of what Catholicism really is. This sort of sociology has done much to undermine the objective content of the Faith in favor of a redefinition of that content to match destructive cultural patterns.

Sociology, again, has its uses. Its usefulness begins when it corrects our mistaken assumptions about the facts on the ground. For example, if I am a bishop who assumes that because a million people in my diocese are registered in the various parishes, therefore all of them are being given a sound Catholic formation and contributing to the strength of the Church, I can very definitely benefit from a sociological study which demonstrates that only 17% of these Catholics can recite the 10 Commandments, only 29% of them attend Mass on Sundays, only 32% of them accept all Catholic moral teachings, and only 40% take the objective content of the Faith into consideration when deciding how to vote. The numbers are fictional, but such studies have played an important role in awakening the Catholic hierarchy over the past fifty years.

Sociology is even more helpful when correlations can be made which, when cautiously analyzed, can suggest causative factors. The direct correlation between Mass attendance and pro-life commitments, for example, has been repeatedly established. A more useful study of Konieczny’s two parishes might have correlated the beliefs, the attitudes and the fostered practices of the pastors with patterns of movement into and out of each parish. A generational study might have given some indication of which approach to work, family and moral issues correlated positively with continuing parish commitments among children as they entered their twenties.

But the one thing that cannot be done by a sociologist is to identify the Catholic tradition with however people who call themselves Catholic behave, and then to claim that parishes which rather militantly foster different forms of behavior are unfortunately fracturing the tradition. Cardinal Bernardin, whose “Seamless Garment” theory won him the book’s dedication, and President Obama, whose speech at Notre Dame is used to frame the issue of polarization, would probably be pleased with this. I think that is fair to say. But it is also fair warning to all who believe the Catholic tradition is not whatever Catholics happen to do, but the result of a life-changing embrace of the principles of the Catholic Faith, as well as a life-changing rejection of the principles which oppose it.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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