If by “Protestants” one means “reserving to oneself the right to pick and choose what is true about faith and morals, and not deferring to any religious authority.” (I know that not all Protestants believe this, however; I say “we are (almost) all Protestants now” because the root of the Reformation was a dagger strike at the heart of the concept of religious Authority in Western Christianity; the dagger strike that sundered the Church universal came from both Rome and Constantinople in 1054, but the Reformation was far more radical. Work with me here, folks.) A new survey is out, and it shows, unsurprisingly, that the Protestantization — by which I mean the individualization — of American Catholicism is fairly complete. Look:

The survey shows that when it comes to issues like divorce and remarriage, abortion, non-marital sex, homosexuality, and contraception, many Catholics are willing to take the teachings of church leaders under consideration, but relatively few Catholics look to the pope and bishops as the sole arbiters of right and wrong on these matters. On the question of divorce and remarriage, for instance, about half of Catholics rely at least somewhat on the guidance of church leaders to decide what is right and what is wrong. But only one in five Catholics says that church leaders should have the final say about right and wrong in this area, compared with 47 percent who say judgments about the morality of divorce and remarriage are best left to individuals. The findings are even starker on the other topics covered by the survey. When it comes to questions of abortion, non-marital sex, and homosexuality, many Catholics say final moral authority resides solely with church leaders or with a combination of church leadership and individual judgment, but upwards of half of those surveyed say individuals themselves are best equipped to make moral decisions on these matters. When it comes to contraception, fully two-thirds of Catholics say individuals themselves should have final say about right and wrong, more than six times the number who agree that church leaders should have final say about right and wrong on this issue.

Yes, the liberal National Catholic Reporter sponsored this study in part, but they were not the only one, and the survey was conducted by an academic team from several Catholic universities. Don’t discount the message because you don’t like the messenger.

Let me stop you here and say that this post is not going to be about Catholicism. It’s going to be about religious orthodoxy, and whether or not the concept is viable in contemporary America — and, if not, what that portends for American religious life. If you want to have that discussion, keep reading. This is a long, meandering post, though, which is why I put most of it below the fold. You have been warned!

As usual, American Catholics who go to mass regularly are more orthodox in their beliefs about Authority, but not wholly so. Researchers classified those Catholics who are the most faithful massgoers as “highly committed,” and said 19 percent of the US Catholic population falls into this category. But even their Catholic orthodoxy is not what one would expect:

As one would expect, highly committed Catholics are far more likely than their less committed peers to affirm the personal importance and meaningfulness of the sacraments and theological beliefs (e.g., the Resurrection), the church’s apostolic tradition, and the church’s socio-moral teachings. By the same token, by a margin of at least two to one, they are more likely than other Catholics to endorse the Vatican’s teaching authority and less likely than other Catholics to emphasize the moral autonomy of individuals in decisions regarding sexual behavior.

The clear differences between highly committed and other Catholics should not be taken to mean that highly committed Catholics march in lockstep with Vatican orthodoxy. Quite the contrary. As is true of Catholics as a whole, many highly committed Catholics construe a Catholic identity that allows for a fair amount of individual autonomy regarding the practice of Catholicism. For example, 60 percent say that one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church’s teaching on artificial contraception, and close to a majority say that a person can be a good Catholic without going to weekly Mass (48 percent), without their marriage being approved by the church (48 percent), and without obeying the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage (46 percent). It is noteworthy that while two-thirds of highly committed Catholics value the papacy as a meaningful aspect of Catholicism (65 percent), a similar proportion also values the fact that Catholics can disagree with church teachings and still remain loyal to the church (62 percent). Indeed, just over half (57 percent) of highly committed Catholics say that the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican is very important to them personally.

If the most committed American Catholics can only muster 57 percent support for the Magisterium’s binding teachings on their consciences, then that makes only something like one in 9 US Catholics can be said to believe in a real sense that what the Church teaches about its own Authority is true. One in nine. 

What’s startling, and most troubling, about this is not that so few American Catholics are perfect (by Catholic standards) in their orthodoxy. That’s to be expected. If one did a similar study of American Orthodox Christians, I’m certain that the numbers would be the same. No, what’s startling and troubling to me about this is not that American Catholics fail to live up to the demands of their faith, but that in very large numbers, they reject the binding Authority of the Church on their consciences. I don’t see any other way to read this. For them, the Church doesn’t command, because it doesn’t have the authority to command; the Church only suggests.

This is the kind of thing that the Catholic blogger and apologist Mark Shea runs up against all the time. Mark is an orthodox Catholic, but when he points out the requirement of the Catholic faithful to obey Church teaching, even when it runs counter to the standard American political conservative stance, many of his right-of-center Catholic readers blast him. The Church doesn’t demand instant understanding of what she teaches, but she does demand basic assent to her Authority to teach accurately and bindingly on faith and morals. I, for example, never deeply understood the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, but I obeyed it because I didn’t have to understand it to obey it; I only had to accept that the Church taught truth, and had a right to tell me what to do. I hoped to one day understand more fully why the Church teaches what it does, but my understanding was not and could never be a precondition of my obedience, not in the Catholic system.

Maybe this is why so many Catholics didn’t understand my loss of faith. They make their compromises to stay within the Church, and to live with things they don’t agree with. I never could make that compromise. Once you reserve the right to dissent from authoritative Church teaching on anything, you become a de facto Protestant, don’t you? The overwhelming majority of American Catholics don’t see it that way, obviously, but I don’t see where the authoritative teachings of the Church give any Catholic the right to pick and choose. To have accepted that possibility, it seemed to me, was to put everything up for negotiation.

It seemed to me, and still does, that the one essential thing that divides Roman Catholic Christians from Orthodox Christians and Protestant Christians is: Authority. Where does it come from? How is it constituted? How is it to be exercised? Understand that I’m not talking about administrative authority, but moral authority, theological authority. If you only accept the teaching Authority of the Roman Catholic Church when it coincides with your own conscience, in what sense does your Catholicism distinguish you from non-Catholic Christians? I’m genuinely curious. When I could no longer affirm that everything the Catholic Church teaches is true because it was revealed by God, I ceased, in my mind, to be a Catholic. Why is this not true? The Baltimore Catechism says:

Catholics accept all the doctrines of faith and morals which were taught by Our Lord and the apostles and are proposed by the Church for belief and practice. A person who deliberately denies even one of the doctrines of the Church cannot be a Catholic. The Church is one in faith.

… Catholics are subject to their respective bishops who rule them. They must recognize the supreme authority of the Pope in matters of religion. A person who deliberately refuses to accept the legitimate and supreme authority of the Pope and the bishops in matters of religion cannot be a Catholic.

I cannot, therefore, be a Catholic, and couldn’t be again even if I wanted to, unless I somehow once again accepted what the Baltimore Catechism teaches. It is a matter of my respect for Catholic teaching that I remove myself from Catholic communion. By this definition, though, only about one in nine American Catholics qualify as authentically Catholic. What am I missing here? If what qualifies as Catholic is only incidentally what you believe, but mostly in which church you were baptized, and in which tribe you choose to identify with, what happens to the Catholic faith over time? I know that religion is not confined to a book of doctrines, dogmas, and exercises in logic … but it’s also not the case that the question of orthodoxy (“right belief”) is non-essential. And you cannot know what right belief is unless you know who has the authority to define it.

As with Catholicism, so too with Eastern Orthodoxy, and any other particular church/religious tradition that subjects the individual to external authority in matters of faith and morals. And here we come to the point of this post: Can any such tradition — Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, etc. — survive a time and a culture in which nearly everyone has become his own Pope — which is to say, in which most people believe that their individual conscience is the only authoritative arbiter of moral and theological truth?

As you answer, I insist that you refrain from personal invective. Talk about the ideas and the logic. I’m not interested in your personal opinion of me, positive or negative, and won’t post those responses. Nor am I interested in wordy polemics against Protestants, against Catholics, or whatever. Ideas only, please. Be critical if you want to, but be respectful, and please take criticism in a spirit of respect. Though I’ve taken the recent survey of Catholic Americans as the concrete example here, this is ultimately a post about religious Authority and practice.

I was talking about this at lunch today with a Catholic theologian friend,  and we agreed that this is a difficult question to answer without knowing more about history. What has the experience of the Church been in other times, and in other lands? It is impossible to believe that there was ever a place in which all Christians knew exactly what the Church taught, and accepted it. What did it mean to be religiously orthodox in 12th-century Russia? In medieval Norway, a hundred years after conversion? In 17th-century Italy? And so forth. Robert Bellah writes in his recent magisterial study that religion is less what the theologians say the religion is (that is, doctrines and dogmas) and more what people who affirm that religion actually do. I am wondering if there was ever a time in the history of the Church universal like today in the West, where most people do not affirm the final primacy of an external authority over religious truth. That is, most people do not submit their consciences fully to an external religious authority, but rather accept the teachings of that authority only insofar as it suits what they would prefer to believe.

Understand what I’m saying here: I’m not talking about people who affirm that everything the Catholic Church (or the Orthodox Church, etc.) definitively and authoritatively teaches is true, but who fall short in living up to those truths and the demands they place on conscience. I’m talking about people who do not believe it is essential to affirm any authority other than one’s own conscience, even though they remain part of a church or religious tradition that does not grant them that freedom.

If Bellah is correct, and religion is more what we do than what we say we believe, then what happens, over time, to the faith handed down to us? Relatively few Americans believe that our job is to preserve the Tradition as intact as we can manage. We believe we have the right to adapt it willy-nilly to our own circumstances. But what do we tell the kids? And what do they tell their kids? And their children’s children?

Has the radical individualism of American culture made the preservation of orthodox forms of religion next to impossible, because except for a small minority of religious believers, orthodoxy is almost unthinkable for people today?

Discuss. Be respectful.