Jerome P. BAGGETT, Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 320. $29.95 pb. ISBN13: 978-0-19-532695-6.
Reviewed by Michael J. McCALLION, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, 2701 Chicago Blvd. Detroit, Michigan 48206

I highly recommend Jerome Baggett’s Sense of the Faithful. It is a gem. Using various social science methods, he has plumbed the depths of how “core” Catholics, those who attend Mass regularly and involved in their parishes, live their Catholic faith. As Baggett writes: “the primary goal of this book is to investigate the manner in which American Catholics remain faithful while at the same time making their own choices about which features of the ‘spirit of the age’ to celebrate or castigate and which ‘new opinions’ to accept or reject” (p.23). Although this quote might lead sociologists to think the Catholic faithful are individualistically oriented, Baggett systematically debunks such a simplistic notion. And as skilled as Baggett is at debunking many other taken for granted assumptions, he is a master interviewer in allowing Catholic parishioners (300 in all) to speak about their faith lives without undue interruption. Then, in analyzing these qualitative data, Baggett employs magnificent prose and a host of sociological concepts to formulate, in my estimation, sensible and balanced social scientific explanations of their faith lives.

Another unique ability of Baggett’s is that of examining Catholic responses to national social surveys and then comparing these responses to his local parish level qualitative responses. In the process, Baggett accentuates the importance of qualitative research in showing that many national survey responses don’t come close to capturing what is really going on in the lives of active Catholics. Chapter after chapter Baggett’s analysis nuances the complexities of what Catholics think at the local parish level, revealing the narrowness of survey findings and consequent misrepresentations of ‘lived Catholicism.’ In Baggett’s own words:

The only problem is that such quantitative data, while very informative, cannot truly capture the complexities of people’s religious agency and moral discernment. Often substituting for these are mere slogans that, even when initially grounded in sound research, can conceal as much as they reveal. The phrase ‘cafeteria Catholic’ is one of them.
Typically used as a shorthand denunciation of liberal Catholics’ supposed proclivity for blithely picking and choosing from among church teachings, it is not a particularly useful label, given that such religious choices are not always casually made, nor are they made solely by religious liberals. On the contrary, people commonly exercise their religious agency with great seriousness. And religious conservatives are hardly exempt from the need to make choices even though they typically place different items on their theological lunch trays.
Baggett’s many challenges to taken for granted assumptions about ordinary Catholics, based on quantitative data, should be particularly interesting to local church leaders as well as sociologists of religion in that many of their own assumptions about how Catholics are will be challenged if not lampooned. Again, in Baggett’s own words: Their [lay Catholics] theological uncertainty might well serve as a lesson for sociologists in particular. The quantitative data generated by surveys are useful, it seems to say, but examining their responses to closed-ended questions can make Catholics seem more assured in their convictions than they actually are. Within the context of prolonged discussion, they demonstrate further complexity, considerable grayness, and, of course, far less certainty when addressing matters as nuanced as religious faith. But don’t write them off as less catholic or less religious than their predecessors because of this grayness. Granted they might be “less dogmatic, exclusive, and institutionally dependent” than previous generations, but they take their faith seriously. As Baggett never tires of reminding us, “Catholics’ lived religion” is messy. And in the process, Baggett shows how religious traditions can be “reinterpreted, rethought, and, even if not always recognized as such, revivified by the very people whose lives they render meaningful” (p. 239).

There is much else that could be said about this wonderful book, but I have one minor critique before ending this review. Baggett writes in his conclusion the following:

In short, learning to plumb the sociocultural roots of their beliefs and dispositions could assist parishioners in more clearly seeing how their religious lives are influenced by important changes within American culture more broadly. This, in turn, would likely help them as Catholics to more purposively discern which societal trends to embrace and which to resist. Although a worthwhile ideal, it is unlikely to occur. For as much as Baggett is attuned to the ordinary faithful Catholic, he shows hints of naiveté when it comes to their reflexive ability. Relying on the rational choice sociologist Giddens, Baggett falls victim to the Enlightenment idea that reason or education is critical to social change. For example, in chapter 6 Baggett describes the Public Forum at Saint Augustine parish on Measure V where a theologian presented relevant Catholic Social Teachings pertaining to the Measure for all to consider. But what happened? The parishioners in attendance never referenced those social teachings in their discussion – rather, they raised all the practical details about the proposal. In other words, there was little reflexivity about their faith lives or decision making in light of their Church’s tradition that was just presented to them five minutes earlier. Even active Catholics, for the most part, are not going to attend educational events that would in turn provide them the opportunity to think more rationally and critically about the broader American culture. And even when they do, there is no guarantee they will apply those teachings as Baggett himself shows in discussing Measure V. This might possibly occur if there are major infrastructural changes within the Church both nationally and locally but there is not sufficient room here for that discussion (although Baggett points to what these might be in chapter 6). Reviewing the literature, therefore, on the behavioral and attitudinal gap that exists between parishioners and professional ministers might have made clear to Baggett that it is mostly professionals who believe rational education can create social change.

Nevertheless, there is much for church leaders and sociologists to glean from this important book that nuances if not debunks many cherished stereotypes about active Catholics. Even the cherished choice as that between the individual or the community that professionals often take for granted turns out to be not such an either/or proposition after all. Professionals of all stripes have much to consider in this book – I hope they read it.

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