The Catholic Boom

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 28, 2007 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

A friend in Florida emailed me this OP-ED column by David Brooks. It appeared in the New York Times on Friday, May 25th. His description sounds a lot like the roadmap of my own family, and so many others that I know.

He didn’t include four things that I think also made important contributions to “The Catholic Boom.” 1) A lot of Catholics in the 1940s and 1950s married people who weren’t Catholic but who converted at marriage. This brought some additions to the gene pool and extended family heritage beyond solid Catholic. Closed walls and ignorance on both sides started to crumble with the advent of children. 2) Attending public school fueled assimilation. 3) The G.I. Bill enabled many Catholics vets to go to college, thus propeling them up the economic ladder. 4) As Catholics became more educated, they stopped relying on clergy for secular direction and made up their own minds. In fact, I think many Catholics found clergy–pastors and sisters who taught in parochial school–pretty dumb, backward and rigid, and not good guides for themselves or their children.

Here’s the column:

“The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher
Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who
speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time.
They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They
find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the
people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often
drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite
shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting
anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian
England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped
shape 20th-century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious
Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were
well below the national average. They had much lower college completion
rates than mainline Protestants. But the past few decades have seen enormous
Catholic social mobility.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white
Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased
the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants. Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, ‘Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.’

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That
meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood
cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity
over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young
Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant
values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility
rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and
obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain
authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to
Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional
patterns of their ancestors – high marriage rates, high family stability
rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk
investment portfolios.

On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic,
more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family.
They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents,
and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar
neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the
dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we
wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility.
The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can
talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign
trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with
college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of
everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about
flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better
than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has
demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with
campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage
dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations
that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always
try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects.
Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside
Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full
quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to
billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.”

Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

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