The sex abuse crisis and the puzzle of Catholic “nones”

Charges and counter-charges of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church heated up considerably this summer, with allegations of abuse and coverup reaching to the top of the Church hierarchy, including Theodore McCarrick, the first-ever U.S. cardinal accused of sexual abuse to resign. While the hierarchy is the focus of this recent wave of abuse and collusion, much of the press coverage has looked at parish-level Catholics and how this might damage their relationship with the Church. It is certain that the material costs of the scandal though lawsuits will continue to impact—in some cases bankrupt—dioceses and in turn parish life (the lawsuits have targeted dioceses and religious orders rather than parishes, since individual churches have little authority over their priests). Much of the data on Catholics’ attitudes to abuse is still related to the parish-level sexual abuse by priests and coverup by local bishops that was revealed during the first wave of this scandal that broke in the early 2000s. Observers are now wondering if high-level involvement in the crisis might lead to greater disaffection from the Church. The Washington Post (August 19) notes that “[s]urveys have rarely asked about the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis since 2013, when a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 78 percent of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal—more than a decade after a Boston Globe investigation prompted the church to overhaul its procedures for rooting out abusive priests.”

In the Post article, Julie Zauzmer, Michelle Boorstein, and Michael Brice-Saddler provide an anecdotal picture of reactions to the latest scandals—ranging “from those who can’t be shocked anymore to those who were newly grieved, from those who feel Catholics are unfairly singled out to those who maintain their faith in the religion but not its leaders.” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, saw this summer as sowing new doubts. “The fact that we thought all the worst had come out already—this is what creates cynicism. People were like, ‘Okay, it’s all cleaned up, now we’re moving on.’ … Now we know: The church is a fallible human organization.” Others cited the ongoing scandal’s impact on young people who already show high rates of disenchantment with religious and other institutions. In any event, it appears that the crisis is widely perceived as adding to the growing ranks of non-affiliated (or “none”) Catholics in the U.S. According to Pew research in 2015, about 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identified with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the Church, while 21 percent of former Catholics identifying as Protestant did so. But National Public Radio (August 18) reports that it is still unclear how the crisis affects Catholic attachment and affiliation with the Church.

Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University is quoted in the report as saying that the reasons Catholics belong to a church and what they find meaningful in church may not have much to do with who the leader or bishop is. “It’s much more personal than that. It’s, ‘this is where I feel a connection to my God. This is the faith community that nourishes me.’” In a paper presented at an August meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Philadelphia, which RW attended, sociologist Carol Ann MacGregor reported that lapsed Catholics do differ significantly in their social and political views and behavior than other Catholics. MacGregor’s analysis did not include data on the abuse crisis and whether it might accelerate lapsing in the faith. She did find an unusually high level of dissent on sexual issues as well as an unexpectedly low rate of community involvement among formerly Catholic nones. Using data from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, she found that lapsed Catholics had odds of supporting abortion that were nearly three times higher than those who were raised Catholic and were still practicing. Lapsed Catholics had two times higher odds of supporting homosexuality in general than their still-Catholic counterparts. MacGregor also found that lapsed Catholics had 49 percent lower odds of volunteering in the last seven days as compared to those who were raised Catholic and had remained so. She cautioned that it was not clear whether lapsed Catholics fell away because of their positions on sexual issues or whether their distance from Catholicism led to a weakening of their belief in official Church teaching.