Catholic Faith in Chicago

Historically one of the most diverse and vibrant Roman Catholic dioceses in America has been Chicago. It was once the largest but I believe that is no longer true. Chicago is known for many things but any consideration of this great city is incomplete without consider the role the Catholic Church has had in the city and its history.

Andrew_Greeley One of the more controversial voices in the modern American Catholic Church is Father Andrew Greeley, author of scores of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Father Greeley is a renowned figure but what is often forgotten is that he is a trained sociologist. In 2008 he fell while getting out of a cab and suffered what the Chicago Tribune called “a near fatal brain injury.” One of Greeley’s passions was to complete a comprehensive study of Catholics in Chicago. His research is intriguing to say the least. Outcry about sex-abuse, disdain for arrogant bishops, disagreement with the church about birth control and abortion rights all exist in Chicago but the research found some other issues of much greater interest to me.

For example, younger Catholics in Chicago “are more at ease with the practice of being Catholic on their own terms.” Now this means they are willing to alter the terms but it shows they are not rejecting the church (at least not entirely) in the process.

The survey found what can be seen in many other areas of America: Catholics generally have a higher impression of their own priest than of the pope or their bishop. 78% of Chicago Catholics say their religion is either “extremely important” or “very important.” Greeley wrote that the survey suggests that there “two separate Catholic identities—an imaginative, story-telling identity and a rules identity.” Greeley concludes that whether the leadership likes it or not there will be “varied forms of affiliation with the Church most of them still love.”

What is truly interesting is that the survey shows 20- and 30-something adults are more devout than older Catholics. And 40% of those who have lapsed are open to return to the church. There is clearly a new wave of Catholic young adults who are revisiting their faith tradition.

It is also interesting that almost half of those surveyed said their five closest friends were also Catholic. Greeley believes this is important but Catholicism is a “communal religion.”

When asked why they left the Catholic Church, from of those who had left 61% said “they found another church more appealing” and 61% said “too much politics.” 60% said “insensitive priests” and 56% said “the sex scandal.” The church “obsessed with money” was a reason given by 56% as well. The “role of women” influenced 51% in their leaving. I am sure the poll records multiple reasons thus some would check off more than a few of these for their reason(s).

When asked how they viewed Catholicism in terms of their beliefs 81% said “the resurrection of Jesus” was most important along with 81% who said “God in the sacraments.” Concern for the poor and devotion to Mary got 75%. I suppose I will never understand such surveys or answers but how could anyone who calls themselves a Catholic, or any other Christian for that matter, not say the resurrection was the central reason for their faith and practice. I wonder what Protestants would say if the same were put to them. While I am sure devotion to Mary would not be on their list I am not sure there would even be 81% who said the resurrection of Jesus was the central point in their beliefs.

The director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago said of the Chicago study: “[Leaders] have to be aware that the church is [perceived as] too authoritative, makes too many rules. Its sermons tend to be uninspiring and there are a lot of areas in which the survey can point to areas where the church might want to try to strengthen.” Amen to that. I am sure the same could be said for all churches, Catholic or not.