- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

When the U.S. Catholic bishops debated solutions to a priest shortage this spring, they were not prompted by street protests or a scandalous newspaper headline.

Rather, they all had read an in-house statistical report: "The Impact of Fewer Priests on Pastoral Ministry," and finally were ready to talk business.

The June debate illustrated the power of research to shape institutions, which is the service the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) wanted to provide when it delivered the report.

"CARA's only agenda is to advance the research needs of the Catholic Church and its decision makers," said Bryan T. Froehle, director of the 35-year-old institute at Georgetown University.

"We have a passion for the social-science research method, and a passion for serving the church," he said.

Sometimes research can rock the boat.

A decade ago, bishops discontinued a university study on the priest shortage when the data looked too glum.

The CARA report now a plumb line for church strategy to recruit more priests or shift to lay ministry revealed that 27 percent of Catholic parishes have no resident priest.

More priests are older than 90 than younger than 30, yet the United States has the best priest-to-parishioner ratio in the world.

"Some people see that as a sign of gloom and doom," said Mary L. Gautier, senior researcher at CARA, where she is on the five-member team of social and political scientists with doctorates.

"But it depends on whether you want to see the glass half-full or half-empty," she said.

Amid its constant research deadlines and fueled by an annual $1 million budget, CARA has found time to compile its best materials for a "portrait" of American Catholicism, a book titled "Catholicism USA."

By the end of next year, two more volumes will complete the project, a portrait of world Catholicism and a series of interpretive essays.

The book on U.S. Catholics is full of facts that demand half-full or half-empty interpretations of the nation's largest religious group.

"We constantly get calls from the press saying, 'So, what's happening?' " said Ms. Gautier. "Is the Catholic Church growing? Is it dying. What's going on?"

The political parties often call, too, she said, asking, "What's the Catholic vote doing?"

To put the priest question in perspective, the book shows that before the 1950s boom in priesthood, the nation had fewer priests than it does today and the church did fine.

True, the 41 percent of American Catholics who are the youngest generation are less institutionally loyal. Still, Catholic young people revere the theology of the Eucharist and Mary and the ethic of service.

"Catholic young adults tend to have a greater sense of identity as Catholics than young adults of other religious traditions," Mr. Froehle said.

What is more, the church is uniquely continental, a mosaic of ethnicities, regions and age groups that matches closely the general demographics of the United States.

"There are stereotypes and generalizations. 'Catholics are this, or Catholics are that,' " Ms. Gautier said. "We take great delight in putting holes in conventional wisdom."

The mandate for a group such as CARA came at the Second Vatican Council, which issued a 1965 document saying that "religious and social surveys, made through offices of pastoral sociology, contribute greatly" to the church's adapting to the modern world.

Since its founding that year, CARA has been in Washington with a board chaired by a bishop. It moved to Georgetown in 1989. Mr. Froehle said CARA's staffing and research numbers have fluctuated since 1965, but it now has begun an era of data collecting and problem-solving.

"A generation has passed since the reforms of Vatican II," he said. "It takes a good generation for these things to really sink in."

Although not the only place for research on Catholicism, the center is a hub for a variety of scholars and advocacy groups. It shares data and conducts polls for Catholic parishes, dioceses or educational groups, and hosts an annual meeting attended by specialists in the field.

Many Catholics, meanwhile, can see the church as it really is without a handbook of data.

At St. Ann Catholic parish in the District, Elizabeth Snee has seen firsthand that the church is culturally diverse, that fewer priests are available and that more lay ministry is filling the gap.

"I go to church every week, and I read the newspaper," Mrs. Snee said. "My daughter was baptized by a deacon. We pray for new vocations [of priests]. When I was young, the church was full of priests and nuns."

Her life matches church demographic patterns: Her parents went to Catholic schools, but she attended public education and learned the faith at home and at Catholic Sunday school.

Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, is promoting the health of the Catholic tradition by seeking more detail on Catholic attitudes.

"Polling is a useful thing in the modern world," he said. "But you don't say that Moses, Jesus or Buddha drew conclusions based on focus groups and popularity polls."

The data may show a weakening of Catholic organizational loyalty, or disagreement with papal teachings on sexual morality, but the experiential part of the church eludes data, Mr. Royal said.

"The real energy across the board is in the more traditional expressions of faith," he said. "It's a countercultural energy. You sometimes have to get beyond the numbers to appreciate this existential weight."

The more liberal reform groups are avid users of the data.

In Cleveland, Sister Chris Shenk, who founded a group called Future Church, galvanized parishes there and around the country in support of lay and women's ordination after the university study that was ended by bishops showed a priest shortage.

"A little-known fact is how many lay ministers work behind the scenes to prepare worship and manage the parish," Sister Shenk said. "People didn't believe it until we had some numbers."

With the CARA study on priests, she said, "The bishops could finally hear the bad news."

Sister Maureen Fiedler of Catholics Speak Out uses opinion polls frequently to make her case for change. "There is an increasing gap between the views of the laity and the view of the hierarchy on internal church issues," she said.

At CARA, the social scientists know that advocacy groups often use research data to argue a cause, and may twist their real implications just as polling can be given a "spin" by partisan groups.

"There's no question in my mind that that happens everywhere," Mr. Froehle said. "So what we want to provide is a context and well-established trends."

For his part, Mr. Froehle prefers to see a glass half-full.

"I don't work on the premise that people are less religious or less spiritual, but that times have changed," he said. "There are new issues out there, and the church has changed as well."

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