Scholar’s final book finds many in Chicago ‘Catholic on their own terms’

Andrew Greeley, a research associate for the Center for Study of Politics and Society at the National Opinion Research Center, has written his final book, a insightful survey of Chicago-area Catholics, which was published this fall with assistance from his colleagues at NORC.

The book, Chicago Catholics and the Struggles Within Their Church, offers a state-of-the-archdiocese look at 2.5 million Chicago-area Catholics, providing a fascinating window into the world of Catholicism in 21st-century urban America.

Though his mission as a sociologist is to report findings rather than make recommendations, Greeley notes that those surveyed clearly indicate a widening split between the laity's continuing enthusiasm for the faith and the church's teachings on moral matters. What is new, he suggests, is an even deeper faith on the part of young Catholics who are "more at ease with the practice of being Catholic on their own terms."

To his surprise, recent reporting in the media over sex abuse, insensitive priests, untrustworthy bishops, birth control, abortion and the role of women in the church do not seem to reflect a rising wave of discontent with their leadership among Chicago-area Catholics.

The book, published by Transaction Publishers, is based on data from 524 Catholic respondents in Cook and Lake counties contacted by the Survey Lab at the University of Chicago in the summer and autumn of 2007.

Greeley, 82, has been planning the book for almost 50 years.

"Why did I commission this study? And why have I written this book?" he asks in a footnote. "I was sent to graduate school by Cardinal (Albert) Meyer to learn how to do sociology and to study the Archdiocese (of Chicago)," he explains. After Cardinal Meyer's early death from a brain tumor in 1965, his successors dropped the idea and, Greeley notes, the archdiocese "did its best to forget about (my) existence.

"Entering my ninth decade, I figured it was time to do it," he writes.

Greeley completed the analysis of the research in the fall of 2008 but was severely injured in a serious accident Nov. 7, 2008. Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at NORC, and Michael Hout, the Natalie Cohen Professor of Sociology and Demography at the University of California, Berkeley, helped complete the book.

"More than 98 percent of the book is Andy's work," said Smith at a Oct. 20 news conference announcing the book's publication. Hout also spoke along with Sean Durkin, director and principal of Navigant Economics and a lecturer in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Durkin is Greeley's nephew, and he and Hout discussed Greeley's interest in conducting serious scholarship on Catholics. Colm O'Muircheartaigh, dean of the Harris School, spoke about Greeley's dedication to rigorous standards of scholarship in doing the survey.

Greeley received his Ph.D. in sociology in 1962, and that year became senior study director at NORC. Although he continued being a priest, he was not assigned to a parish and allowed to continue his work as a scholar.

Respondents were asked what Greeley described as "the standard blunt political question - 'Do you approve or disapprove of the job being done by the pastor of your parish, by the Cardinal Francis George and by Pope Benedict XVI?'" Some 85 percent approved of the Pope; 86 percent of the Cardinal, and 90 percent of their pastor.

In addition, 78 percent of the respondents said that Catholicism is either "extremely important" or "very important" in their lives.

Nor did Greeley's survey find evidence that large numbers of Catholics were preparing to decamp from Catholicism, although many Catholic churches are half-empty on Sundays, in the wake of the reforms of Vatican II that removed the penalties for non-attendance, while the numbers of priests and nuns have dwindled.

The in-depth survey of attitudes suggests that "there seem to be two separate Catholic identities - an imaginative, story-telling identity and a rules identity," Greeley writes, leading to the emergence of a subset he describes as "Cafeteria Catholics."

Such Catholics cling to the sacraments and the narratives at the core of the Catholic imagination, as well as to their Catholic community, but make their own choices on moral, religious and political issues.

As well as addressing such matters as boring sermons, insensitive priests and interminable pastoral letters, Catholic church leadership should bring more imagination to the preaching of the celebrations and images that interact with the experiences of daily life, a connection that has sustained the church throughout its history, Greeley suggests.