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BC Faculty Weigh In on Religion Survey Results

A survey published recently by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that while most Americans consider themselves religious, they have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

The report -- which is available online -- also indicates that Massachusetts lags behind the nation in the percentage of its residents who are religious.

Boston College faculty members offered their reactions to the study:

Prof. James Bernauer, SJ (Philosophy), director of the Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning:
I look upon the development of acceptance of other faiths as very positive and I think more is involved than mere tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and people are less able and willing to live within ghetto communities where the outsider is regarded through a veil of ignorance. Friendship, not enmity, is a window into the other's soul and we have many more inter-religious friendships than was customary in the past. They have made us aware of the rich spirituality and generosity of others and they have made us appreciative of how God is working in the lives of others. It is a very traditional Christian teaching that God wills the salvation of all and what we seem to be learning now is that God has been accomplishing that salvation through all sorts of channels we did not appreciate.
"We live in a pluralistic society and people are less able and willing to live within ghetto communities where the outsider is regarded through a veil of ignorance."
As for the statistics about Massachusetts: Speaking from the Catholic side, it seems to me that the Church has stressed too much its identity as an institution and, with the sexual abuse crisis and the development of deep appreciation for women's gifts, its institutional quality was called into question. When so many people lost respect for its institutional conduct, numerous Catholics walked away. Some probably keep an identity with the Church as community or fellowship but many no longer seem to find hierarchial institutions as homes for spiritual development.

Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill:
The study was not surprising to me, but that is probably because I have been following religion poll data for some time. Exit polls and surveys show that Catholics vote on a variety of social issues, not only the so-called "Catholic" issues of abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. In 2004, much attention was given by the media and certain Catholic bishops to abortion, especially the practice of barring from communion politicians of whose abortion politics some Catholic bishops disapproved. Exit polls in 2004 showed that Catholics did not differ significantly from other Americans in giving reasons for their vote. Most Americans identified the Iraq war as the most important moral issue." It seems then that the majority of Catholics ignored official Catholic teaching in deciding their vote (for Bush), since both pope and bishops had expressed disapproval of Bush's Iraq policy, and most especially of the doctrine of "preventive war."
As far as religious tolerance, truth coming in "many forms," and the possibility of attaining eternal life in various religions, are concerned, the majority of Catholics are in agreement with official Catholic teaching. The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate represented God's covenant with the Jews as still valid and salvific. The 2000 document Dominus Iesus does hold up Christianity as the only fully true religion. However, it also affirms that people of good will in any faith tradition may be saved. Moreover, saying a religion is not true would not amount to saying that its adherents should be denied religious tolerance.

Assoc. Prof. Dennis Hale (Political Science):
Americans are still far more religious than the citizens of other modern democracies -- though it is never easy to know what this means exactly. And being religious has always implied, at least officially, tolerance of other faiths. The Constitution does not establish a state religion, and the First Amendment forbids establishment, precisely because of the Founders' view that there could be no civil peace unless Americans could overlook, politically, their differences of faith. But "respecting" another man's faith did not require you to believe his faith to be true. In our private lives, it was expected that we would continue to wrestle with the problem of belief and salvation: whatever truth might be, there could be only one truth. A Presbyterian could therefore say about an Anglican that "He is a good fellow, so it's too bad he's going to hell."
"...There is something fishy about denying the truth of any faith whatsoever. This is what might be called 'soft tolerance,' since if all faiths are equally true, they must also be equally false -- which raises an obvious question about what Americans mean when they say that they believe in God."
Now, however, there is something fishy about denying the truth of any faith whatsoever. This is what might be called "soft tolerance," since if all faiths are equally true, they must also be equally false -- which raises an obvious question about what Americans mean when they say that they believe in God.
If 60 percent of Massachusetts residents proclaim a strong belief in God, there must be a fair number of God-fearing Democrats in this state. The claim that Democrats are heathens is apparently an exaggeration.

Prof. Thomas Kohler (Law):
The study seems to demonstrate the continuation of a trend: Catholic distinctiveness appears to be waning, and Catholics seem increasingly to take their cues on questions of faith and morals from the culture. What Andrew Greeley has called the "Catholic imagination" seems increasingly to be largely indistinguishable from the the imagination formed by the general American culture. My guess is that one would find variation depending on age -- those raised in the pre-Vatican II Church probably would have more characteristically Catholic attitudes than those raised thereafter. In question after question, the response of Catholics seems to differ little from that of the average American. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that Catholics are just under a quarter of the population, but one would expect, if the faith informed their responses more fully, that there would be some clear distinctions, which at least on quick review, I don’t see.
It's a little hard to read the figures about the character of Catholic attitudes toward the faith: The interviewee is questioned, in the alternative, "Is my religion the one true faith or can other religions lead to eternal life?" A Catholic could correctly answer that the Church is the one true faith, but that God, in His providence, will grant eternal life to others. The Church does not teach that only Catholics can attain salvation. My guess is, however, that many simply think that there is no one true Church -- that sounds too exclusivist.
I think that the study suggests that there is much less of an institutional attachment among Catholics and a loss of an understanding that the Church mediates the relation between us and God. I also think the study tends to suggest a growing belief that matters of faith and morals are matters for personal judgement (take the Catholic attitudes toward abortion as demonstrated in the study).
By the way, I don’t find it surprising that Catholics, less than Evangelicals, struggle with the question of whether there is a God -- that is the stuggle for faith, and if Mother Theresa and the great saints had dark nights of the soul, I find it not surprising, and maybe even refreshing, that my fellow Catholics do as well.
I do find some responses particularly unsettling, however: That 44 percent of people in Massachusetts consider The Bible “a book written by men and not the word of God” I find very interesting. From the arrival of the Puritans, Massachusetts has been a center of dissenting views—perhaps that accounts for some of this. I also think that for Catholics, formation has not been particularly good, and that many are not well-informed of what the Church teaches and why she teaches what she does. I also believe that the sex scandal has had an effect on views of Catholics here.

Prof. Thomas Groome (Theology), director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry:
That the vast majority of Americans count themselves as "religious," affiliating with a particular tradition, and yet are tolerant toward adherents of other religious traditions is a very positive sign that we are maturing in faith -- as a nation. Such toleration and appreciation of other traditions is imperative if our world is to ever find peace and our country to remain united in the midst of its growing religious diversity. As a Catholic I note happily that dialogue with and respect for other religious traditions was championed by the Second Vatican Council. It would seem that religiously at least our society is moving in the right direction.


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