Some observers and scholars have speculated that conservative Catholic seminaries and dioceses — like their conservative Protestant counterparts — are more likely to draw in members and vocations than more liberal groups.
In reporting on a conservative and liberal dioceses, writer Charles R. Morris found that there is something to this speculation, but not everything. Writing in the Catholic magazine Commonweal (June 6), Morris visited the strongly conservative Catholic diocese of Lincoln, Neb. and came across some surprising figures. The ratio of active priests to Catholics in Lincoln is about 1:700, more than half higher than the rest of the country. From the diocesan directory, Morris calculated the median age of active priests to be about forty-three, “an astonishing twelve or thirteen years younger than the national median. About a third of the priests [in Lincoln] are under 35.”
But when it comes to Mass attendance and other indicators among the laity, the picture is somewhat different. In researching the liberal diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, Morris found that Mass attendance there ranks in the top third in the country, with a 31.5 percent weekly average compared to a nationwide median of 26.7 percent.
Although there were no similar figures for Lincoln, Morris estimated from one large parish that the weekly attendance might be about a third, or about the same as in Saginaw. When comparing the “liberal” dioceses — such as Milwaukee and Seattle — against conservative ones — such as Denver, New York and Portland, Ore. — there is no “consistent relationship between theological outlook and lay church attachment.”
For instance, Milwaukee — home to the liberal Archbishop Raymond Weakland ranks eighth out of forty-eight dioceses in Mass attendance, while the above conservative dioceses rank near the bottom along with very liberal Seattle. Such a lack of correlations merely shows the limited influence that bishops — whether conservative or liberal — have on the daily workings of parishes, according to Fr. Ron Lewinski, who has studied effective parishes across the U.S. But that would not seem to apply to the Lincoln and Saginaw dioceses that Morris studied.
Bishops of both dioceses are models of hands-on leaders, forging “pastorates in their own images.” But that has not made much difference. Although all the diocesan priests have preached on the sinfulness of contraception for years, Lincoln’s Catholics use birth control at almost the same rate as everyone else. “And despite the fact that Saginaw’s Catholics are not being forced to go to the sacraments, their Mass attendance turns out to be higher than average.”
(Commonweal, 15 Dutch St., New York, NY 10038)