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Posted February 3, 2010

Today’s Catholics Different From Earlier Generations, But No Less Religious

Taken from the CARA Report
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C. 20057-1203

We often hear derogatory remarks about today’s American Catholics: they are less religious, less faithful, less committed and less church going. Professor Jerome Baggett of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley demonstrates: we need to rethink the categories we use in studying today’s Catholics and to avoid using categories of the past solely in judging them. In other words, we shouldn’t look at the way mom and dad’s practiced religion in the past and use that same set of eyes in viewing how Catholics practice religion presently.

. . .Baggett’s book begins by introducing the dramatic changes in American Catholicism that have occurred within the past century as well as the book’s rationale and research methods. He then explains what it means to view people’s religious lives through the lens of cultural analysis, which he employs through the topic of the religious self and points to various “conversational shards” indicative of Catholics’ negotiation with their tradition on the basis of what feels authentic to them. Another chapter focuses on parishioners’ awareness of the various institutional dilemmas that encumber their church, as well as how these influence their perceptions of themselves as members of the broader institution.

Baggett also discusses how parishioners’ conceptions of religious community reflect their social locations and are largely derived from longstanding notions of community carried within American culture more generally. Using selections from the interviews, he illustrates how parish cultures often delimit the role that the church’s social justice teachings might otherwise play in influencing Catholics’ sense of obligation and contributions to civil society.

. . .Baggett maintains that “the common wisdom that today’s American Catholics are less religious than their predecessors is in reality neither common nor particularly wise. This presumption lacks wisdom in that it almost unfailingly highlights one way the faith has been lived in the past, determines this to be normative, and then dismisses what might depart from it as being somehow less religious. But seeing things in this manner actually reveals a blindness to the constitutively changing nature of religious traditions, as well as their variability from one cultural context to the next.