Census Fidelium?

Earlier this year, America magazine released data from a survey of Catholic Women. Kerry Weber of America states that, “One of the few qualifications for being a respondent to America’s recent survey of U.S. Catholic women was seemingly a simple one: answer ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Are you Catholic?’” Yet, amongst the women surveyed, only 24%

“Catholic Women in the United States,” 1

said they attended Mass at least once a week. According to Weber, this led many on Facebook and Twitter to say that only those respondents who attended Mass weekly in accordance with their canonical obligation were “real” Catholics. Weber responded (and was echoed by Fr. James Martin) that “If we believe in the power of baptism and in the grace it offers, there can be nothing but ‘real’ Catholics among those who have been claimed for Christ through this sacrament. No matter how far from the church one runs, it is impossible to opt out of the ‘indelible spiritual sign’ that baptism provides” and that this meant that “the thoughts and opinions of the other 76 percent of women who replied” are “equally valuable.”

Weber and Fr. Martin are, of course, right in two very important respects. First, they are undeniably correct in claiming that Catholic doctrine teaches that all who are baptized are indelibly marked by their baptism.

Second, from a pure social science perspective, researching the responses of anyone who identifies as Catholic and then thoroughly breaking down their responses is valuable. After all, the survey also points out that .04% of self-identified Catholic women also identify as atheists. Nobody, from the most liberal writers at America to the extremists in Church Militant, would claim that these atheist Catholic women are somehow representative of Catholic women, but it isn’t the job of sociological researchers to weed them out if they fall into the chosen data set of those who self-identify as Catholic.

Who Counts as Catholic?

Yet, while I’m sure some of those who claimed that only the regular Mass attenders “count” were doing so out of ignorance of Catholic teaching on baptism, there were surely many who addressed the results of the survey with intelligent responses about the importance of listening to those actually engaged in their Catholic faith. Even the baptism issue seems to be a red herring to a certain extent since the survey didn’t ask if those who self-identified as Catholic were in fact baptized. It seems unlikely than any significant portion would so identify without baptism, but there is no proof in the data to say otherwise.

Those who say that only the responses of those who are faithful in Mass attendance should “count” are clearly not attacking the survey, but making an analysis of the results of the survey. The Catholic faith is not merely a label, it is a way of life, just as surely as being Jewish or Muslim is in its fullest sense more than mere ethnicity. Baptism makes you really Catholic, but that doesn’t mean every baptized Catholic’s understanding of the faith is equally valid.

A husband who spends all his time on business trips or out drinking with his buddies is just as much a husband as the devoted husband who comes home to his wife every night, helps her with the care of the home, and goes out with her on a date once a week. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the absentee husband’s perspective on marriage matters as much as that of the devoted husband.

All of us have a variety of identities that lay claim to us. I am a Catholic, a husband, a business manager, an American, and much more, but not all of these carry the same importance and it is my perspective on the ones I am most invested in that matters most.

Regular Catholic worship is a very basic litmus test of engaged Catholic identity. Worship is, after all, the first commandment, the primary end of humankind, and the primary act of the virtue of Religion (which St. Thomas Aquinas tells us exceeds all other virtues [Sum II-II, 81, vi, co.]). Thus, if someone does not make worship at least a moderate priority in her life, her Catholic identity is not a primary part of her life and her perspective on Catholicism is in fact less valuable.

Clear proof of the distinction between being Catholic by baptism and having a valuable Catholic voice is the fact that all those whom the Catholic church considers to be heretics and schismatics are, by definition, baptized and so Catholic.

Such individuals include: Arius, Nestorius, Henry VIII, Fidel Castro, many others. Are their perspectives on Catholicism as valuable as those of orthodox believers?

Moreover, as Ross Douthat pointed out in his recent debate with Fr. James Martin, there is often a sense on the part of those on the conservative/traditionalist side of current Church debates that claims that are themselves perfectly innocuous are being marshaled by people like Fr. Martin with a very particular agenda in mind that is hostile to their understanding of the faith. To treat the voices of those who aren’t faithful in even the most basic of Catholic behaviors as equally valuable can ultimately function as a secular colonization of the faith. Those whose identity is not grounded on the basic practices of their religion will inevitably be shaped more thoroughly by their other identities and those identities will almost certainly be either secular or heretical. To treat the voices of such people as equally valuable robs Catholicism of content and effectively erases those who actually practice the faith.

Things Left Unsaid

Because Fr. James Martin is often very coy about what he actually believes on issues of controversy in the Church, it is difficult to know what his actual position on this question would be, and I certainly can’t speak to how Ms. Weber would respond to my critiques. However, I have seen many of Fr. Martin’s loyal followers take up precisely the position that the worries the conservative critics. For example, on the Facebook thread started by Fr. Martin about the survey, many respondents adamantly claimed that they were just as Catholic as those who practice the faith. Some even claimed to be better. Many who made these claims also went on to talk about how they couldn’t wait for the Church to “get with the program” on issues of controversy in the Church. In other words, in all the areas where they were with the secular world and against the Church, they wanted the Church to accommodate to the secular world. They also frequently made statements about how the Catholic faithful are all like them and the leaders of the Church simply needed to realize this and give up their outmoded beliefs.


Intentionally or not, the lack of any correction to these statements on the part of Fr. Martin clearly lets these individuals feel vindicated by him: he is on their side – they are just as Catholic as the next person and the Catholic Church needs to change to accommodate them.

There is a concept in Catholic teaching called the sensus fidelium. This doctrine teaches that “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). In the hands of Fr. Martin’s followers and those like them, this concept morphs into one of “census fidelium” – the aggregate beliefs of the majority of Catholics cannot err. When it is claimed that the views of all those who identify as Catholic are “equally valuable” it can bolster this understanding in those Catholics and confirm them in their wayward Catholicism.

In truth, the sensus fidelium is not an empirical claim in any straightforward sense. Those who claim to be Catholic cannot simply be aggregated to arrive at the sense of the faithful. After all, there were times in history when there were more Arians or Nestorians or other heretics than Catholics. Rather, it is a claim that there will never come a time when the entirety of the faith will fall into heresy, even if that means only a remnant will remain true to the faith. In matters of Catholic faith, therefore, it is the voice of those who are trying, however imperfectly, to follow the historic teaching and practice of the Catholic faith whose voices are most valuable.

Regardless of the intentions of those at America magazine, there are many who take the results of the survey and the accompanying claims of America that the views of all who identify as Catholic are equally valuable as justification for the way they are living their lives. While I am sure this is not the intention of Fr. Martin or Ms. Weber, more needs to be said by them in order to teach the Catholic faith and call us all to conform our lives to the teachings of Christ. It is pastorally dangerous to leave those who are living lives the Church considers to be gravely sinful with the impression that they’re doing just fine.


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