success stories

Posted October 10, 2003

Dr. Dean Hoge's Remarks as He Receives the
Father Louis J. Luzbetak Award

Dr. Dean Hoge is the Director of The Catholic University of America’s
Life Cycle Institute in Washington, DC

Hoge counseled the U.S. church needs to engage in careful research and planning to meet effectively the challenges of its transition, already well under way, from clerical and religious leadership to predominantly lay leadership.

He started getting involved in Catholic social research in the early 1970s he quickly learned that "the American Catholic community has been less intensively studied than Protestantism" -- a situation that he said "remains true" today. A major reason is that American bishops have not been very receptive to social science. ... They do not feel the same urgent need for feedback as do most mainline Protestant leaders, or as do other institutional leaders such as politicians or university administrators."

He also found "that many Catholic decision-makers were quite ignorant of other denominations," so one of the aims of much of his comparative research has been to help Catholic leaders see how the Catholic experience compares with that of other religious bodies.

He agrees with the argument by religion writer Peter Steinfels, in his new book, "A People Adrift," that the Catholic Church in the United States is in the midst of a major transition brought on by a number of converging forces, including the growing shortage of priests and nuns. He quoted Steinfels: "Leadership by priests and nuns is giving way to leadership by lay people. Nobody can stop it."

"Not everyone agrees with Steinfels. But after studying the situation for two decades, I agree with him. We do not have the option of keeping things in place as they were prior to the 1970s and 1980s."

Hoge said Steinfels' assessment of the church's increasing reliance on lay ministry for parish life challenges Catholics to "produce the kind of Catholic institutions the world needs."

"A transition is ahead and we should not deny it," Hoge said. "Nor should we fear it. The Gospel is the same and the mission of the church is the same. Only the social situation is different. We must rethink institutional policies, and we must do it collaboratively, earnestly, with prayer and with as much discernment as possible."

Hoge urged sociologists "to show the Catholic leadership what research can do" to help them meet such challenges. But he also reminded us that the role of research is limited, like the instrument panel on which an airplane pilot relies. "The information it provides must be reliable, accurate and uncolored by partisan references. If it not reliable and unbiased, the pilot will not trust it."

He said researchers are also free to have their own opinions about what the church should do. "But that is a separate matter," he said. "If Catholic leaders want our opinions about the findings, we need to keep them clearly separate. Our findings need to be reliable and nonpartisan."

He cited Father Andrew Greeley, a frequent critic of the U.S. bishops, as a sociologist whose mix of "findings with polemics" may have contributed to the wariness bishops seem to have regarding sociology.

"We need to avoid this. We need to define our restricted role and be clear about it."