American Catholics — in public and in transition

Ever notice how restaurants feature all manner of fish specials during Lent, even at fast-food spots known for burgers and chicken? It’s not just for health reasons. The Lenten season focuses curiosity and scrutiny on a faith that fascinates, even if you know it only from headlines — from sex-abuse scandals to a pope with rock-star status. The influence of one faith that claims 75 million followers in America seems most evident in a solemn season that began this week with Ash Wednesday, when those who span the spectrum of Roman Catholic devotion return to tradition to spend the day wearing a visible manifestation of religious belief.

But that nod to tradition belies a group of believers in transition. A Pew research study released Thursday shows that like many other institutions, questions about the church’s direction run deep. (The survey of 1,821 adults included 351 Catholics.) Would it be any other way in an American society that is changing? The very makeup of the church’s followers in America has shifted, with the growing number of Hispanics revitalizing the country’s Catholic community.

Pope Francis, popular in a new survey, leads a church in transition. (Source: The Washington Post)
Pope Francis, popular in a new survey, leads a church in transition. (Source: The Washington Post)

Survey results showed more respondents support and expect that the church would make changes in basic doctrine and traditions by 2050, allowing Catholics to use birth control, priests to marry and women to be ordained priests. In a surprise, 50 percent of U.S. Catholics said the church should recognize same-sex marriages.

While traditionalists have been knocked off balance by some of his pronouncements, many look to a still new pope to direct change, taking cues from his social justice emphasis and humble lifestyle. Pope Francis is popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, scoring favorable ratings of 85 percent among Catholics and 66 percent overall not quite a year after his entrance on the public scene as pontiff. Those are numbers any of the stars honored in last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony would envy. But the excitement he has generated has not translated into more people in the pews, according to the survey.

Another news story proves how controversy still follows the church and the pope, now criticized for the slow progress toward a planned Vatican commission that would be study the best way to protect children. When asked about the issue, he said in an interview published this week in an Italian newspaper, in language reminiscent of past Vatican statements: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”

Worldwide, those waiting for justice and to be heard saw reflexive defensiveness in those words rather than a church transformed. One man, even a pope, can’t and won’t change an institution, something that’s difficult to explain to those who see a Time magazine Person of the Year and believe he can make things right.

The opulence of the swanky planned digs of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers proves that not even all members of the church’s hierarchy have heeded the pope’s preaching on simplicity and putting the least of these first, a simple message that had conservative voices such as Rush Limbaugh crying Marxism.

Doctrine and an entrenched system aren’t going anywhere, despite Francis’s new appointments and vows to clear the bureaucracy. Lay voices will be raised to challenge and hold the church accountable.

In America, freedom of and from religion is a right. It’s a country with no official religion, though many wear faith on their sleeves and in their politics. Reliable tradition becomes, for now, the public face of a Catholic Church that a survey signals is restless about what lies ahead.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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