Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Catholic leaders”dialogue”with Buddhists; why not the laity?

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreeley(AT)

UNDATED _ The biggest of all conflicts in the Roman Catholic Church for the past 30 years is over sex and gender _ and authority as it relates to both issues.

There are two dimensions to this conflict.

First, in the late 1960s, the Catholic laity and the lower clergy _ parish priests and others _ began to turn away from church teaching on issues such as birth control, divorce, premarital sex, abortion, and in vitro fertilization.

Today, only a small minority of Catholics accept the church’s right to impose sexual rules on them. Essentially, the church has virtually no control over the sexual behavior of Catholics.

This has been shown by every valid study done of Catholics. It is true not only in the United States but, with some modifications, in all other countries for which data exist, including Poland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, England and Germany.

To say this has happened is not to say the development is good; it is merely to say it is today’s reality.

Second, without admitting this systematic rejection of Catholic teaching on sex, church leaders have nonetheless tried to re-establish their credibility to teach on sexual issues and to demand that laity and clergy obey these teachings. There is not, however, any evidence this counter-offensive has had success.

Quite the contrary. The drift of Catholic lay people _ including the active and church-going membership _ away from the church’s teaching on sex has continued unabated.

Thus recent instructions from Rome on how a priest is to handle the confessions of the divorced and remarried, and of those who use birth control assumes the faithful confess these matters. But they stopped confessing about such issues a long time ago.

No ecclesiastical official of whom I am aware has ever admitted _ on the record _ that the situation I describe actually exists. It would be the end of one’s career to acknowledge that laity and clergy have been lost on matters of sex. One must pretend they are listening to and obeying the Vatican.

Yet when church officials do acknowledge the situation, they offer a number of explanations. The laity, and presumably the lower clergy, officials say, are materialists, secularists and sex-crazed. They are no different from Protestants and, thus, no longer good Catholics.

Others simply deny the truth of research findings. The scholars who have studied these matters here and abroad are making it all up, the leadership argues. Or, they suggest, perhaps the theologians and sociologists who have written on the subject have had an undue influence on the behavior of the laity.

The trouble with many of these arguments is that they are on such a high level of generality that they cannot be tested.

To say American Catholics are consumerists is not adequate to explain why, for example, they widely approve of in vitro fertilization.

Moreover, the generalized attack on the laity as ungenerous and faithless cannot explain why American Catholics have, after the Irish, the highest rate of church attendance and personal prayer, and are first in financial giving and volunteer service.

Nor does the argument of the laity’s faithlessness account for their overwhelming rejection of extramarital sex both in theory and in practice.

The explanations offered by church leadership, therefore, are not only self-serving, they are self-deceiving. It may make the church’s leaders feel good to blame it all on the failings of the laity, but such a solution also excuses the leaders from trying to heal the breach between the teaching church and the learning church.

Is there an alternative response?

Church leaders might engage in”dialogue”with the laity to understand their perspective on sex and how they have come to a state in which they no longer take the church’s teaching on the matter seriously.

But dialogue is condemned because to church leadership it seems to imply that to listen is to compromise, and so the other side might have a point.

In fact, dialogue doesn’t mean that at all. It is possible to listen to others to learn how they think and what they claim their experience tells them without compromising.

The church engages in dialogue about fundamental doctrinal teachings with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and even agnostics. But apparently it cannot dialogue with its own laity on sexual issues.

Why not? Beats me!