Note to Pollsters: What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.  ~ Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii

If someone says “practicing Catholic,” what do you think of?

If your first thought it involved Mass attendance, you’d be in good company. Pollsters and pundits tend to clump Catholics into two broad categories based largely on their church-going habits. On the one hand, you have “Cultural Catholics” who were formed in the Faith, but who are no longer regular Mass-goers. “Practicing Catholics,” on the other hand, are those who go to Mass at least once a week—those, that is, who take seriously the “Sunday obligation,” the “foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice” (CCC 2181).

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Yet, given the confusion today among even the most devoted Mass attendees with regards to what the Church teaches and what our faith demands of us, maybe there’s a better definition of “practicing Catholic.”

Consider, for example, the 2015 findings of the Pew Research Center. Pew found that a majority of self-identifying Catholics support alterations in traditional Church teaching on marriage, women’s ordination, and birth control, and the results were only marginally different when you narrowed down the sample. “Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, support for these changes was lower overall,” according to the Washington Post. “But Pew notes that even among this particular group, two-thirds of Mass-going Catholics said the church should relax its prohibition on contraceptives.” To put it another way, there’s practice, and then there’s practice. 

It’s noteworthy that the Post zeroed in on birth control as the Catholic marker, as if birth control attitudes were somehow a particularly telling indicator of commitment. I think the Post is on to something there, and it coincides with a snippet I heard on NPR’s Morning Edition last month. Eleanor Beardsley and Steve Inskeep were chatting about a recent primary election among French Conservatives to determine who’d represent them in an upcoming presidential contest. I’m interested in what’s happening in the world, but French politics? I boorishly phased out and paid little attention as I got ready for work.

But then Beardsley said something that immediately caught my attention: “He’s a practicing Catholic. He has five kids.”

She was describing Francois Fillon, a hardy French politician who pulled off a surprise primary victory and who will be facing off against candidates to his ideological left and right in the May general election. Beardsley provided a number of other details about Fillon—that he served as prime minister under President Sarkozy for five years, that he has a British wife, that he’s very conservative, but not nearly as conservative as the far-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party—but I wasn’t really interested in all that.

What intrigued me was Beardsley’s juxtaposition of the designation “practicing Catholic” and the biographical detail of Fillon having five children. Perhaps it was unconscious, perhaps it was intentional, but either way, I highly doubt her association of those two observations was purely random.

Instead, I’d suggest that it was an association that accurately reflects a wider cultural view of what practicing Catholicism really looks like from the outside: lots of kids—way more than most families. Like Fillon’s five kids—five! That’s enough to get you unsolicited comedic comments from total strangers round these parts, and I’ll bet the same holds true in France where families average less than three people—and that includes the parents.

Am I suggesting that practicing Catholics have bigger families by definition? Nothing of the sort. Plenty of devout Catholic couples have yearned for full minivans, but have ended up with families of one or two kids—sometimes, painfully, none at all. Fertility is an inestimable gift, but it’s still a gift, and we can’t make demands of God any more in this arena than we can in any other.

However, there’s still a very real and important association between fully embracing the Faith and larger broods, and it has nothing to do with the effectiveness of natural family planning. It’s this: When Catholic couples truly buy into the Church’s teaching on marriage and openness to life, they naturally gravitate to welcoming more children. Here’s how the Catechism, quoting Gaudium et Spes, captures this idea:

True married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it, without diminishment of the other ends of marriage, are directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich his family from day to day (CCC 1652).

It’s not that NFP doesn’t work, and it’s not that the Church demands as many children as possible. Rather, it’s that couples who practice NFP just like having more babies and they’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary to welcome and care for them.

And did you notice I snuck in the word “practice” there? What exactly does that word mean in this context anyway? It’s not like practicing Catholicism or NFP is like practicing the piano, right?

I like how Joe Paprocki parses it in his book Practice Makes Catholic (2011), where he contrasts practice as rehearsal (as in plays or performances) with practice as craft (as in the practice of medicine or law). “Practice is who we are and what we do,” Paprocki writes. “To be a practicing Catholic is so much more than going to Mass on Sunday.”

Exactly! And Paprocki does an admirable job at laying out a vision for what that “so much more” consists of—things like “A Sense of Sacramentality” and “A Commitment to Community.” I leafed through Paprocki’s book expecting to find some kind of reference to generosity in welcoming children that comes with putting into practice the Church’s teaching on marriage, but I missed it if it was there. There’s no index in the book, so I focused on Paprocki’s section on “A Respect for Human Life” and his treatment of the 6th Commandment—You shall not commit adultery. “To practice the sixth commandment,” he writes, “is to properly control and channel our sexual desires in order to respect relationships”—and who can argue with that?

But what of the dual meaning of marital intimacy, unitive and procreative, that Paul VI articulated in Humanae Vitae? Where’s the radically counter-cultural affirmation of the connection between sex and fecundity—a connection that is rooted in biology and natural law, and assumed in both Sacred Scripture and the most ancient traditions of the Church?

Unfortunately, Paprocki doesn’t include these ideas—he doesn’t even allude to them, not even in his list of “Practical suggestions for practicing hospitality.” For that’s what bigger families are all about, isn’t it? It means that with each successive childbirth, the couple says to each other, “This child, this infinitely treasured incarnation of our love, is so blessed awesome that we want another one!” The husband and wife share a gaze of their rich, messy family life, and then, when gazing at each other, they say “Yes!” again to being open to life.

Obviously, this take on Catholic practice has a more nuanced meaning for unmarried folks and celibates. Nevertheless, I think an argument can be made that a Humanae Vitae perspective is applicable to them as well. Single practicing Catholics, for instance, will be on the lookout for potential mates who share their eagerness for welcoming children someday, and priests and religious will not only promote this eagerness, but will be especially solicitous of those who make sacrifices in order to live it out.

In any case, I think it’s worth keeping a Humanae Vitae filter in mind when we read reports in the news about what practicing Catholics think or do. Getting to Mass on Sundays is a given. The real question is whether those Mass-goers are totally surrendered to the transformative power of the Gospel, and there’s no better indicator of that than a willingness to be transformed by whomever God chooses to send their way.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


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