Who Speaks for American Catholics?

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The American Catholic Church is no doubt a great puzzle to non-Catholics and to most Catholics as well. What is the Church? Who is it? What does it believe? And importantly, who speaks for American Catholics?

At one level the face of the Church is the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. The chair of the Conference is Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, who in a conference address last year reminded all Catholics that their consciences should be formed through the guidance of the Church hierarchy.

The bishops think that should settle the matter, but it doesn't--not even a little bit. Though the Catholic hierarchy did not endorse a presidential candidate in 2008, their frequent directions to Catholics left little doubt who was the preferred candidate. Barack Obama was pro-choice and Catholics had to take that fact as their major consideration in casting their vote.

However, Catholics didn't heed the Bishops. They supported Obama with 53 percent of their vote--the same percentage as other Americans. Hispanic Catholics, the fastest growing group of Catholics, supported Obama with 70 percent of their vote.

Jump to 2010 and the health care debate. It's important to remember that the Church has long been in the vanguard of American institutions fighting for universal health care. But the Catholic Bishops had a major concern. Was the language in the final version of the bill too loose about abortion? Could federal funds ever be used for abortions? The bishops decided a presidential statement clarifying the concern was not strong enough so they refused to endorse the bill.

Again, this should have decided the issue, but it didn't. A coalition of 59,000 nuns, while paying respect to the Bishops, said they disagreed with their interpretation. The 1,100 member Catholic Hospital Association did likewise. Anti-abortion Catholic Congressman Bart Stupak, less polite than the nuns, called the Bishops hypocrites. Liberal Catholic groups leaped on the Bishops as again being out of touch with the faithful--the men and women in the pews who constitute the American laity.

National polls are also instructive. Dr. William D'Antonio of the Catholic University of America has conducted surveys and written on Catholic attitudes. In a 2007 poll, he examined the vital question of whether Catholics relied on their bishops or their consciences for moral authority. In the vital area of human sexuality, which included abortion, homosexuality and contraception, D'Antonio found that every age group of Catholics depended more on their consciences than on guidance from the bishops. Only 33 percent of Catholics over 65 looked to the Bishops on the abortion issues. And 19 percent of the youngest Catholics, aged 19-28, viewed the persons as their guides.

D'Antonio also found that 90 percent of Catholics who have had sex in the last 30 years have used contraceptives--again ignoring guidance from the Church hierarchy.

The American Catholic hierarchy was appointed almost totally by John Paul II, who valued fidelity to Church dogma as the single greatest quality for a leadership post. But the Church in America is faced with an ever-growing number of lay Catholics who see no contradiction with thinking their own thoughts on moral issues while remaining within the Church.

The American laity is more and more speaking for their Church. Many would argue that the late Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speak for American Catholics because of their ferocious support of health care. Both are pro choice. Other Catholics defer to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia or Chief Justice John Roberts. And there are Catholics who argue that within the broad confines of Church doctrine, they as individuals, following the sanctity of their consciences, speak for the Church as well as anyone--including Cardinal George.

The result is a truly big tent Catholicism in which the laity is far more liberal than the hierarchy on matters of sexual morality, but in which large segments of both groups support European-style government that provides aid to the most vulnerable in society.