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March 19, 2012

Rise of the "secular Catholics"

As a rule, opinion polls are not as important to bishops as they are to politicians.

Nevertheless, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips recently asked Bishop Joseph Malone of Maine if he realized just how out of step he is with current doctrinal trends in his own flock.

"So, bishop, times are changing," she said. "Views are changing. ... So, why not get on board with the 43 percent of Catholics?"

The puzzled bishop replied: "The 43 percent who?"

"Who have no problem with gay marriage," said Phillips.

"Well, their thinking is outside the realm of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years," the bishop responded.

The bishop, of course, was talking about how traditional Catholics wrestle with moral issues, while the CNN anchor was describing views now common with a completely different kind of Catholic.

But in the polls, these days, a Catholic is a Catholic.

"I don't know of anyone who thinks religious identity should be based on polling," said theologian Tom Beaudoin, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

Nevertheless, he said, it's time to note what researchers are learning about the lives and beliefs of what he called "secular Catholics." For starters, bishops need to admit that they exist and that some of them want to stay in the church -- while practicing their own personalized approaches to faith.

"Secular Catholics are people who were baptized as Catholics, but they find it impossible to make Catholicism the center of lives, by which I mean Catholicism as defined by the official teachings of the church," said Beaudoin. For these believers, there are "things that they learned about faith from Catholicism. Then there are things they learned from their jobs, from school experiences, from their music and from their favorite movies.

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