The American Catholic Family: Signs of Cohesion and Polarization

William V. D'Antonio

William V. D’Antonio, “The American Catholic Family: Signs of Cohesion and Polarization,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 88–106.

William V. D'Antonio was executive officer of the American Sociological Association when this was published. He has been president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He received his PhD from Michigan State University.


In sociological theory religion traditionally is seen as integrative for the group and/or society but also, often, as a cause of conflict between groups and within and between societies. Furthermore, it has been said to be the source of self-identity for the individual and for adherents to a group. In the context of this paper, religion is seen as traditionally being the vital source of norms and beliefs creating family solidarity, defining appropriate behavior within and between families and with individuals and groups external to the family. In turn, the family is viewed as the cross-generational lifeblood for most religious organizations.

I examine the American Catholic family in light of four organizing themes that variously relate to this general theory:

1. The process of modernization/rationalization as it has influenced the Roman Catholic church and Catholic families; [1]

2. Within that broader theme, the struggle between personal autonomy and obedience to hierarchical authority; [2]

3. The tensions caused by control versus support mechanisms in developing normative orientations to behavior; and

4. The implications of demographic change for church teachings and family life.

This examination begins with a review of the formal teachings of the Roman Catholic church on marriage and family, touches on the larger societal context in which they have emerged and been framed, and notes the modifications to the present. This is followed by an examination of the changes in attitudes and behavior of the American Catholic population, with particular attention to the impact of Vatican II, “the pill,” and the ensuing controversies over birth control and abortion.

In the concluding section, I summarize the shift that has been and is still taking place within Roman Catholicism, away from dogma and unqualified obedience to hierarchy and toward imagery, story, community, and commitment based on love and friendship. However, as anyone following the national news during 1984 is aware, this shift has been met by a strong ideological countershift from the right, in defense of tradition, hierarchy and obedience, with emerging new patterns of cohesion and polarization within the church as an organization and its Catholic family adherents. [3]

Teachings of the Catholic Church from Casti Connubii (1933) to “Educational Guidance in Human Love” (1983)

The Roman Catholic church’s teachings on marriage and family were formalized in 1933 in the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) by Pope Pius XI (D’Antonio and Cavanaugh, 1983: 150–52). To a large degree the encyclical was a response to the new formulations and major changes being made by Protestant church leaders through the Lambeth Conferences held in England during the previous decade. The conferences had led to a reformulation of Protestant church teachings on contraceptive birth control (allowing such practices). They also paved the way for new policies on divorce and remarriage, the role of sexuality in marriage, and the role of women outside the home.

In Casti Connubii the Roman Catholic church reaffirmed the traditional teachings: (a) procreation and rearing of children is the prime purpose of marriage; (b) conjugal love is an important purpose of marriage; (c) family size may be limited for licit reasons; (d) periodic abstinence is the only licit means of birth control for married couples (e) total abstinence from any sexual activity is the rule for the unmarried; masturbation is a serious sin; (f) marriage is a sacrament, indissoluble except through annulment; (g) woman’s proper place is in the home.

In retrospect, the major thrust of Casti Connubii as a teaching document was its focus on birth control and on the bearing and rearing of children. In this regard the key passage of the encyclical was the following: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.” Conjugal love took second place, with pastoral reminders that obedience to God’s law required self-discipline and self-sacrifice. It was a document severely defining what was moral and what was sinful behavior. Roman Catholics were expected to obey without question. Whatever the intention the result was a primacy of focus on control rather than on support, based on the claim of an authority rooted in tradition. Sunday sermons, articles in diocesan newspapers, and episcopal letters hammered away at the evil of contraception and the virtue of self-discipline through rhythm or abstinence.

The debates that raged within the Vatican halls during Vatican II, and that have raged since then in Rome and throughout the Catholic world, essentially have been efforts to respond to, elaborate on, and/or free the people from the narrow strictures posed by this encyclical.

Vatican II. We know that Roman Catholics did not always live up to the strictures imposed by Casti Connubii, but they accepted them as normative. Ultimately, the confessional was the test of obedience to church authority. [4] That there were problems with the teachings became evident during the deliberations of Vatican II, with the creation of the document on “The Church in the Modern World,” and with the creation of the special commission to review the church’s teachings on birth control. Rapid population growth was acknowledged as a problem, especially in areas with limited food and industrial resources; conjugal love and a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction in marriage were explicitly recognized as legitimate expectations of marriage; and birth control became the focal point of the debate, with “the pill” viewed by progressives as the mechanism to free couples from the bind of Casti Connubii. The debate became more and more public, and Pope Paul VI vacillated between tradition and change.

In late July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (on Human Life), a complex reaffirmation of the traditional teaching on birth control. The encyclical attempted to be more than that, but the sections on the importance of conjugal love and on the need for responsible parenthood were largely ignored in the press and in the minds of church leaders and the laity. The encyclical received strong negative reaction from a majority of the laity in most parts of the Western world and was criticized also by theologians individually and in groups. [5] In reaffirming the church’s traditional opposition to contraceptive birth control, Pope Paul VI overrode the proposal of the majority position of the special birth control commission that had been established by the Vatican to consider the question. This action by Paul VI seems to have done more damage to the formal teaching authority of the Pope than any other action in this century. (Greeley, 1976.)

Recent Elucidations by Pope John Paul II. During the early years of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II issued a number of statements about marriage, sexuality, family life, woman’s place, all of them essentially reaffirming the traditional teachings, albeit offering a positive orientation to human sexuality as a central and vital component of the human experience, finding its full and appropriate meaning in the context of marital love. At the same time he has denounced divorce, abortion, premarital sexual relations, and the relinquishment of woman’s role as central figure in the home. He has actively discouraged discussion about the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. Thus, to a great extent, he has tried to shore up the traditional teaching while giving more positive emphasis to marital sexuality. His method has been one of trying to reinvigorate traditional teachings with a warm personal style.

Nevertheless, there is some movement toward change. To show the direction of change that is subtly taking place, and the emphasis on a variety of facets of family life, we need to explore two documents that were released by the Vatican in December 1983. The first, entitled “Educational Guidance in Human Love,” is meant to provide guidance on matters relating to sex education. In summary: (a) The document encourages sex education (Pope Pius XI had condemned sex education), which is seen as the primary responsibility of parents, but with recognition that educators can help and should do so by working with parents, (b) Authentic sex can be found only in a love relationship, and that relationship can be authentic only within marriage. In turn, the document affirms that sexual communion in marriage leads to personal maturity, (c) Furthermore, the document states that sex education aims “at the harmonious and integral development of the person toward psychological maturity.” (d) Sexual intercourse has dual value—it is central to the intimate communion of love, and it leads to the procreation of children.

The document seems to stress conjugal love over procreation, reversing the traditional teaching, albeit not without some equivocation. Moreover, the document goes on to acknowledge how difficult it is to achieve a high level of integration of sexuality and love.

With regard to masturbation (e), the document finds it to be a personal deficiency, since it is not able to foster new life nor serve the love relationship, (f) Homosexuality is presented as an even graver deficiency, since it prevents people from becoming sexually mature, maturation being a function of the heterosexual relationship, (g) The document makes only limited references to contraception, urging that sex education programs provide a full discussion of the natural methods of fertility control and, at the same time, pointing out what is wrong with other methods of birth control. Essentially any method other than rhythm and its correlates simply does not yield a “responsible marriage, full of love and open to life.”

The document continues by urging educators and parents to be patient, not coercive; they should avoid laying a heavy burden of guilt on young people but, at the same time, should not act as if the differences between what the church approves and what secular society approves are less than they are. Most scholars and critics have seen in this document a gradual, slow evolution away from norms that threaten and control behavior and toward more supportive norms for behavior. [6]

The second document was entitled “The Charter of the Rights of the Family.” [7] Addressed to the governments of the world, this document proposed a list of twelve articles basic to family life. Again, it warns about the worldwide danger from contraception, abortion, and divorce, as well as the evils of the media for propounding sex and violence. However, it goes further in some interesting directions: (a) The State should insure that there is a family wage sufficient to provide a decent way of life, (b) Moreover, the family wage should be such that “mothers should not be obliged to work outside the home to the detriment of family life and especially of the education of the children.” (Apparently, a father inside the home would not do the job well enough, nor would the sharing of parental tasks.)

The document also (c) speaks to the plight of migrant workers and urges that they be reunited with their families as soon as possible. Taxes on businesses would help defray the costs of such reunions, (d) Another point raised concerns the right of states (India and China, for example) to tell their citizens how many children they should have. It is the contention of the Vatican that the state has no right to intrude in these matters.

This latter point illustrates the tensions created by church leaders when they try to confront modern problems from a traditional orientation. Given what we know about the impact of population growth on all facets of social life within nations, and increasingly between nations, we may ask about the rationale for asserting that the state has no rights in such matters. After all, the Vatican has asserted that the state should provide health, education and jobs, and transportation subsidies for migrant worker families. What criteria, then, will help us determine the proper relationship between the private actions of citizens and their public consequences? The Vatican position seems to limit moral responsibility to one direction—with what larger social impact?

Two other items need to be mentioned in this review of the church’s changing and nonchanging teachings on marriage and family. During 1983 Pope John Paul II reprimanded the U.S. hierarchy for giving consideration to discussions on the possibility of women becoming active ministers in church services, eventually even of being ordained to the priesthood. He continues to be adamantly opposed to the possibility; but his opposition has stirred a rift with some laity and many women’s religious orders. [8]

While the Pope also continues his denunciation of divorce, the grounds for annulment within the church have been broadened and expanded by the newly revised code of Canon Law. As a result the number of annulments granted annually has jumped dramatically from 338 in 1968 to some 52,000 in 1983 (Farrell, 1984). Even with regard to annulment, however, the Pope warns of abuse. This adherence to traditional teachings may be one of the factors lead- ing Catholics to question and challenge papal authority in many areas of personal morality, a topic to which we now turn our attention.

The Changing Catholic Laity: The Generation of Vatican II and Beyond. Lenski’s classic The Religious Factor (1963) provided a benchmark portrait and analysis of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish values, attitudes, and behaviors regarding religion in general and family life and religion in particular. In the late 1950s, when Lenski was completing his study, Catholics were distinguished from Protestants and Jews by their attitudes toward family size, divorce, birth control, the importance of the extended family, the value of personal autonomy versus obedience, and a host of other variables.

Just about all studies in recent years (Heiss, 1977; Westoff and Jones, 1977; McCarthy, 1979; Roof, 1979; Mosher and Goldscheider, 1984; Lane, 1984) show that the differences between Catholics and Protestants on matters like marriage, divorce, birth control, family size, and abortion either have disappeared or have greatly diminished during the period between 1955 and 1982. Studies (Gallup, 1984) also show that age is a strong predictor of attitude and behavior, with young people being more permissive and older people more traditional and conservative. Gallup and other data further show that young Catholics are more like young Protestants in their beliefs and practices than they are like older Catholics. While it is true that as people age they become more conservative, the trend data relating to matters like birth control, divorce, and abortion show that regardless of age the American public is becoming less conservative over time. Even in matters of religious belief, there has been an erosion. For example, in 1970 (Stark and Glock, 1970) 69 percent of Protestants and 86 percent of Catholics declared Jesus to be the Divine Son of God with no doubt about it; in 1984 Gallup reported that only 60 percent of both Protestants and Catholics continued to hold this belief.

While Americans continue to say that they are believers (95 percent), that religion is very important in their lives (56 percent), and that they have more confidence in religion than in any other social institution of American life (62 percent, only 12 percent of the Gallup sample (1984) fell into the category of highly religiously committed. [9] Moreover, only one in four young people expressed a high degree of confidence in organized religion (Gallup, 1984: 64), while “overwhelming proportions of Catholics (82 percent) and Protestants (74 percent) believe that a person can be a good Christian (or Jew) if he or she doesn’t go to church.” It is in the context of this background that we examine briefly the particular attitudes of young American Catholics.

There are some 52 million people identified in national polls as Roman Catholic in some degree. Catholic youth (18–29) represent about one-third of that total. Conversion to Roman Catholicism has not been a significant factor in church growth in recent years; there were only some 94,000 converts to Roman Catholicism in the U.S. in 1983 (Cullen, 1984). Hence, whether the church remains stable, grows, or declines is, to a large extent, a function of the activities and attitudes of these young people. The young Hispanic population, for instance, may or may not be a significant source of church growth in future years (Fitzpatrick, 1983), since large numbers are still unchurched.

The Younger Generation: Some Findings Related to Religious Beliefs and Practices. The ties of young Catholics to the institutional church have weakened since the days of Vatican II. In 1980, for example, 79 percent of all Catholics identified themselves as members of the church, but only 75 percent of young Catholics (ages 18–29) did so. By contrast, in 1965, at the end of Vatican II but before Humanae Vitae and the general social unrest that swept the nation, fully 90 percent of all Catholics declared themselves to be church members (Gallup, 1984).

Just as telling are the figures for regular church attendance. Fee and associates (1980) report that the percentage of young Catholics attending church regularly fell from 35 percent in 1971 to 29 percent in 1979- By contrast, for Catholics in general, 52 percent were attending church regularly in 1979; but this also was a dramatic drop of 22 points from 1958, before Vatican II and Humanae Vitae. The church attendance rate for Protestants has remained steady at about 40 percent during the past twenty years, while for young Protestants the rate dropped to 29 percent, mirroring that of the young Catholics.

Young Catholics reflect the general young adult population in their approval of birth control (95 percent), remarriage for divorced people (89 percent), legal abortion in the case of a serious defect in the fetus (85 percent), euthanasia with patient and family support (66 percent), premarital sex (83 percent), and unmarrieds living together (76 percent). They also mirror the general population in their disapproval of homosexuality (77 percent). (Fee et al., 1980: 33–40.)

More than anything else, these data reveal that the Roman Catholic church, as represented by the Vatican, has lost its moral authority as teacher on matters of family and sexual morality. Indeed, only 25 percent agreed (Fee et al, 1980) that “the Pope is infallible when he speaks on matters of faith and morals.” In a different study of 10,000 Catholics in sixty parishes, Sweetser (1983) has found that only one in three agreed that “Catholics should always follow the teachings of the Pope and not take it upon themselves to decide differently.”

While their obedience to Rome and the Vatican has become problematic, three out of four continue to call themselves Catholics. Fee and colleagues explain this phenomenon as follows: these young people retain strong ties to parish organizations, to local units that encourage and are sympathetic to them, are supportive of them. Moreover, within these parish organizations, their ties are strengthened when they are served by priests who empathize and counsel them and offer “well-planned and articulate sermons” (1980: 29). The ties, then, are to local parishes, not to the larger, bureaucratic, institutional church located in Rome, with its rules and teachings that seem remote and abstract at best, but increasingly restrictive, unfeeling, and irrelevant now.

In trying to understand further the continuing influence of religion on their lives, Fee and associates (1980) found that the best predictors of young people’s continued affiliation with Roman Catholicism were (a) how joyous mother’s approach to religion was, (b) coming from an intact family, and (c) the perception that one’s family life was happy. While these variables were predictive of continued affiliation with a particular parish or congregation, they did not necessarily predict doctrinal orthodoxy.

Hoge and Petrillo reported similar findings in a study of college students. Intellectual development and religious knowledge, or their absence, were unimportant for explaining which youth were religiously committed and which not. The important variables were whether or not they liked their religious training; had positive experiences; and enjoyed warm, personal relationships. Moreover, the more highly committed found these with their parents, peers, and church leaders. (1978: 373–74.)

To summarize, the data suggest that there are a number of social factors that help explain one’s continued affiliation with or one’s disaffiliation from organized religion. Retaining ties had little to do with formal church structures; with fundamental beliefs; and with the norms of orthodox, conforming behavior. Rather, they had to do with socialization and social relationships that emphasized support and love rather than control and obedience.

Let us examine further the impact that modernization (rationalization of life processes) has had on Catholic family life.

Modernization and the Rationalization of Life Processes. The rise of bureaucratic organization, with its specific manifestations in large-scale corporations, government at all levels, labor unions, and the military, is very much a function of what Weber considers the movement away from traditional authority structures and toward what he calls legal-rational structures (Weber, 1921). Whether driven by a certain religious ethic or not, the fact is that these structures now dominate our lives. Gradually, they have given new meanings to a number of value orientations, and these value orientations in turn often develop a power to influence behavior in their own right. For purposes of understanding the dramatic changes that have taken place in Roman Catholicism, it is necessary to appreciate how circumstances of the past twenty-five years have encouraged Catholics to become more personally autonomous and less subject to traditional mechanisms of social control.

The creation of the special birth control commission during Vatican II, and the almost simultaneous invention of “the pill,” stimulated independent thinking in the church among laity and clergy that was unknown in earlier eras. These events occurred during the same decade as the student movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement.

In a society that places so much emphasis on the individual and her/his achievements, on freedom to do what you want when you want, and on equality of opportunity, it should not be surprising that eventually these values would begin to have their impact on family and religion. Remember, during the last twenty-five to thirty years, the majority of American Catholics were moving into the third, fourth, and fifth generation of life in the United States and were completing more and more years of formal education.

From the point of view of the individual Catholic, the confluence of structural opportunity, the invention of the pill, more formal education, the experience of Vatican II created a new situation, one for which the hierarchy was not prepared. Moreover, the family in its traditional Catholic structure and values was hard put to survive. The years since the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) have led to a questioning of more and more traditional teachings, with the Vatican trying to find new ways to express them.

While the U.S. Conference of Bishops formally adheres to these teachings, they have given prime attention in recent years to major social issues like hunger, nuclear war, the war in Central America, underdevelopment, and the economy. Their major attention has been on matters of social morality.

One of the most dramatic actions in 1983, following the Peace Pastoral of 1982, was an effort by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago and now probably the most influential American Catholic prelate, to join the personal and social elements of morality. In a speech at Fordham University on December 6,1983, Bernardin used the metaphor of the “seamless garment” to propose that Catholics should see the sacredness of life and the struggle to protect life as sacred not only in an antiabortion stand but also, and at least as importantly, in their stand against poverty—in their commitment to insure that fetuses brought to term have a fair chance of a decent life—that poverty is an evil to be just as forcefully opposed, that Catholics have an obligation to share their wealth, that they should oppose capital punishment as another form of abortion or degradation of the sacred nature of life, and finally that they must oppose war as the ultimate form of degradation. In his own words, Bernardin states:

The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life Consistency means we cannot have it both ways: We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fibre of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility. (Bernardin, 1983: 6–7.)

I find this statement interesting for many reasons, including the way that it promises to affect Roman Catholics and perhaps others in this society. It has been criticized by the conservative Catholics who see abortion as a single issue not to be confounded by other issues. Bernardin’s “seamless garment” of life becomes a divisive issue for them; it confounds their efforts and weakens their position. Conservative Catholics generally oppose abortion but support capital punishment and a strong military. Many also oppose large-scale welfare aid but support Reagan’s military policies in Central America, which Bernardin and his supporters oppose. (O’Connor, 1984: 19.)

At the same time, Bernardin’s position attracts the attention of the liberal/progressive Catholics, who are found on all sides of the abortion issue (it should be noted that there is a formal organization of Catholics for a Free Choice; the organization was formed in 1975, publishes literature and makes a strong claim for legitimacy within the formal church structure [1981]). In the larger context of the “seamless garment,” the value of the sacredness of life takes on a new meaning, and progressives may give it strong support. It seems a more rational approach to life than does the traditional antiabortion position. (Alegretti, 1984: 14.)

Therefore, just as Cardinal Bernardin’s effort suggests a new cleavage with the conservative, traditional Catholics, it provides a basis for a new consensus, at least a partial integration for the progressive Catholics who already have taken strong positions on peace and poverty. Thus, Bernardin’s proposal also may provide a new basis for self-identity with the formal church organization. At the least, it provides a linkage.

To summarize this point, traditional teachings on marriage and family still are adhered to only by a minority of American Catholics. Clearly, however, the fact that an overwhelming percentage of Roman Catholics support birth control and the right of divorced Catholics to remarry shows that there is a selective “fit” between the Church’s formal teachings and the practices of laity that crosses ideological lines. Conservatives are most loyal on abortion, woman’s place in the home, premarital sexual abstinence, and homosexuality. Their integration with the Catholic bishops and with the Vatican is threatened not so much by teachings on personal morality but by those on social morality, such as the Peace Pastoral, The Seamless Garment, and the new document on the American economy.

For the progressives the positions are almost reversed. Thus, the conditions for an emerging polarization are becoming ever more apparent. For the conservatives God’s laws are known and need only be applied; for the progressives life is a developmental and unfolding process, in which the individual and the society are inextricably intertwined in the creation of a history. The move toward polarization reflects in many ways the struggle going on in the larger society, as evidenced by the creationism versus evolution battle and the prayer in school and abortion law controversies. It appears that such variables as the degree of salience of issues and commitment to the organized church are likely to affect the struggle in the months and years ahead.

It is in this turbulent setting, then, that we briefly examine the final theme of the present paper: changing demographic patterns.

Religious Teachings and the Life Course: Possible New Directions Facing Catholics

Sullivan (1983) and Riley (1983), among others, have directed our attention to the demographic revolution that has taken place in the past fifty years, and its implications for the family. We are at a new and exciting period in family history. For the first time large numbers of young couples find themselves with two children of their own—while their parents and their grandparents are still alive. People now struggle to develop and/or maintain social networks across four generations. With increasing longevity, five generations are very probable for a considerable portion of the population. There are no records from history to provide guides for attitudes and behavior.

A host of research questions has been raised by Sullivan, Riley and others about the implications for people at all stages of the life course of the newly emerging extended-family networks, which also increasingly include ex-in-laws and children of several marriages. One logical extension of Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach is for religious leaders and groups to help sponsor some of this research and to seek the evidence from research as a basis for policy planning. Whether this is the kind of issue that might draw both progressives and conservatives together is not at all clear at this time. What is clear, however, is that there are data from the 1980 census (McKenney et al., 1983) suggesting that some religious/ethnic groups may be more attentive to the needs of the elderly than the general American population. Are religion and ethnicity—or just ethnicity, or some combination of variables—responsible for the apparent continuing strength of the extended family through three and four generations in at least some sectors of the American population? More research is needed before we can begin to answer these questions—research that may have important policy implications for all those concerned with the changing nature of the family throughout the life course.

In contemplating the kinds of research questions that might be posed, the following formulations offered by Fee and colleagues (1980:239–40) may extend across generations as new ways to think about old relationships:

First, we contend on the basis of the evidence that religious behavior is a “primary group” phenomenon, influenced most powerfully by one’s intimate relationships in the family of origin, and family of procreation, as well as in the local religious community. A papal encyclical on human sexuality or social justice has much less religious impact than does the quality of the Sunday sermon, the dedication of one’s spouse, and the memories of one’s childhood religious experiences that have been encoded in one’s personal stories of God. For most people, the farther away a religious factor is from the place where they live (physically as well as psychologically), the less important it is likely to be.

Secondly, we also contend that the images, pictures, and stories which exist in the religious imagination provide much of the raw power of religion in people’s lives. Furthermore, these facets of religious imagination are responsible for the tenacity with which many young people maintain their Catholic commitment despite inconsistencies in their propositional beliefs and their frustrations and dissatisfactions with the ecclesiastical institution. Theological systems, catechetical formulations, and creedal propositions are not unimportant. But, when it comes to how often a person prays, or how a person reacts to death, or how committed he or she is to the search for social justice, or how he or she relates to a marriage partner, religious images—stories of God—are far more important.

Modernization has made long life possible for most people; it has brought with it new emphasis on personal autonomy rather than obedience, and it also seems to have given rise to norms and patterns of social relationships that emphasize social support rather than social control. Of course, modernization also has made possible the great demographic transformation of American society. We must ask, however, about the impact these factors have across three, four, and even five generations of family. What kinds of new residential living arrangements may be forthcoming?

If love is a prime value of contemporary family life, how might research help us understand the conditions under which love is or is not fostered—within the nuclear family and across three, four, and five generations? Is there a relationship between nuclear family size and the kinds of social networks that can be developed and maintained across generations? Do church teachings foster, impede, or have little impact on love in the family?

How adequate are the current teachings of the church to meet the new situation? Is a hierarchical structure with norms that still are perceived to give primacy to law and control likely to offer effective options to families? Do these new teachings—for example, Bernardin’s idea of a consistent life ethic expressed in the metaphor of the “seamless garment”—contain the seeds of the church’s transformation to modernity, as some would aver, or of its destruction, as others fear?


In this paper we have examined the impact of modernization on the American Catholic family. The modernization process reached its culmination during the past twenty-five years; in convening Vatican II in I960, Pope John XXIII said that it was time to open windows in the church, and open them he did. One of the most obvious consequences has been the degree to which personal autonomy has come to replace obedience as a prime value upon which to make decisions affecting matters of personal and social morality. Thus, while some ignore the Vatican’s teachings on birth control, abortion, and divorce, others ignore it on poverty, capital punishment, war, and American capitalism. The gap is widening between the formal teachings as espoused by the popes in their encyclical letters and the actual attitudes and practices of Catholics as revealed in a succession of studies over the past twenty-five years.

While the gap is widening in general, it also is creating polarization between conservatives (laity and clergy), who profess to follow the traditional teachings, and progressives (laity and some clergy), who either focus on the spirit of the teachings or ignore them. On family matters the hierarchy itself has changed and altered its focus of attention. Having lost the battle over “the pill” and birth control, it has come to focus its attention on abortion. These public controversies, involving as they do most intimate aspects of human behavior, have led to growing challenge to papal authority and, by extension, to the authority of the bishops as teachers, as shown in the challenge to the Peace Pastoral and now to the pastoral on the American economy. What goes largely unsaid but not unnoticed is that, by issuing these pastorals as documents for discussion and revision by the laity, the bishops are acknowledging in effect the legitimacy of modern legal-rational thought over traditional authority.

One consequence is the gradual deinstitutionalization of Roman Catholic religiosity. Catholics young and old increasingly act like Protestants; they continue to identify themselves as Catholics while rejecting, or holding as doubtful and not binding, many, if not most, of the formal teachings and distancing themselves from the authority of the institution itself.

Thus, the shift is away from dogma and toward imagery; away from traditional authority emanating from Rome or the local bishop’s seat and toward the gemeinschaft-like relations of local parish life; away from threats of excommunication and punitive control and toward pastoral support, love, and friendship. This shift is occurring even as we begin to glimpse the implications of the great demographic transformation that has taken place and that not only guarantees longer lives for people but challenges us all—including church leaders—to reexamine our beliefs and practices regarding family size and social networks across generations.

While religion still makes a difference among some Catholics in predicting attitudes, values, and behavior, that difference has grown smaller over time, so that now it is significant for only a small minority of the population. Also, only about 15 percent of Catholics are highly involved and committed to their religion. Like other Americans their major commitment is to making a living and living comfortably in what is essentially a secular setting. Perhaps this fact, more than any other, reduces the probability that the current polarization within the Catholic church over matters of personal and social morality touching the family will erupt into conflict causing schism.


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[1] For a detailed analysis of the modernization process and its relationship to religion and family life, see Hargrove, 1983. Weber, of course, was most concerned with the negative impact of modernization—especially bureaucratic organization—on the human condition (e.g., see Weber, 1921:212–54, 926–38). The focus of my concern is its impact on the traditional bureaucratic organization of the Vatican, and on the Catholic laity.

[2] For an earlier elaboration on the movement toward greater commitment to personal autonomy among Roman Catholics, see D’Antonio, 1980.

[3] The present paper was written and presented in March 1984, more than a year after the promulgation of the Bishops’ Peace Pastoral and several months before the divisive public debate on abortion and “Religion and Politics,” which itself was followed by the bishops’ draft statement on the economy. This in turn was challenged by a counter-statement from a group of Catholic business and professional leaders. These events have helped to sharpen the lines of division and cohesion within and between the ranks of the laity and the hierarchy. Perhaps the most important fact about all this is that it could not have been imagined a generation ago.

[4] Johnson and Weigert (1980) have provided an unusual insight into the way the themes of this paper have been reflected in the functioning of the confessional for both clergy and laity. Rather than finding a monolithic clergy defending traditional teachings on sex and procreation in the confessional, they were able to identify three types, with one defending tradition while, at the opposite end, a pastoral type emphasized individual conscience and love.

[5] For example, see The Birth Control Debate (Hoyt, 1968), especially the third section, “Responses to Humanae Vitae.” While not all responses were negative, the divisiveness of the encyclical was revealed by the range and sources of responses.

[6] For a friendly critique of “Educational Guidance in Human Love,” see Burtchaell, 1983; and see also the editorial, “Papal Shift in Sex Statement,” 1983. The document is summarized in the Washington Post, December 2,1983, pages Al and A26.

[7] See Hebblethwaite (1983) for a summary and critique of “Charter of the Rights of the Family.”

[8] For a review of the range and extent of the feminist movement within the Roman Catholic church, see “Women Doing Theology” (Beifus, 1984), a special feature in the National Catholic Reporter containing ten essays on feminism and religion.

[9] For example, see The Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the 80’s: The Impact of Belief (1981). The study was based on a national sample of Americans aged fourteen and older, via telephone interviews using random digit dialing. Indeed, it does show that religion makes a difference: people who are deeply committed religiously are more likely than the less religious to favor the traditional family, wife as homemaker, and to oppose abortion. Perhaps more telling, however, is the finding that the great majority of Americans do not have a high level of commitment to religion. A special Guttman scale of questions on religious commitment found that only 26 percent of the sample had a high level of commitment, with 50 percent having a low level and 24 percent having a moderate level. The researchers also found that only 15 percent of Roman Catholics—who constituted 28 percent of the sample—said they were highly committed to religion. Thus, these data lend further support to Fee and colleagues’ (1980) findings that the majority of young Catholics lack commitment to the traditional institutional church.