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Christian Love into Civic Action: Clues from Sociology

Last Sunday, the Gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan. At my parish Mass, the priest stated that the story is well known to all of us, but it’s important that we not let it become mundane. Love is not a mere emotion; rather, Jesus is asking all of us to adopt a “radical, foundational,” active love. The homilist further noted that more love is desperately needed in society today. How we would practice such love, as individuals or as a parish, and what concrete steps it might mean for our action in society, he did not say.

Hopefully, the homily got the many of my fellow parishioners’ brain juices flowing about these questions for a while, as it did for me. I think that’s likely, and that’s about all we should expect from a single homily. Where most parishes falter is in providing guidance outside the homily to help their members make those connections in reflection and action.

While it’s important to reflect on these matters normatively (theologically, about what should be the case), it’s also useful to examine them descriptively (sociologically, about what in fact happens and what works for making change). So, for the past two months, I’ve read every academic article I could find in library databases that use social science methods to study the connections between church life and civic engagement—well over 100 articles. I’ll share three of many takeaways, highlighting findings that compare Catholics to other people of faith.

First, active church participation matters. Generally, people have to belong to a church and go to services to learn about and then participate in the church’s own outreach projects. But it’s not mere attendance that matters—attending religious services does not greatly predict people’s active participation in civic organizations. However, their being active in additional church activities does.

Second, traditions and their theological stances matter. To nuance the previous point, the kind of Christian or religious group to which one belongs makes a difference. A well-attested finding is that Jewish and mainline Protestant members and congregations are the most civically and socially active, Evangelical Protestants are the least, and Catholics are in the middle. While Evangelicals are not a monolithic group, they are consistently on the low-end of civic outreach, for reasons ranging from their theological conservatism to their focus on in-group bonding. Interestingly, regular attendance does raise the likelihood of Christians volunteering for social change efforts, except for Catholics. Like Evangelicals, the most-attending Catholics seem to turn more inward, which is also true of all Christian communities with a conservative theological orientation.

Third, the Catholic edge in youth volunteering gets squandered. For civic engagement, one might think to place hope in Catholic youth, who volunteer at high rates, benefitting from the service opportunities organized by Catholic schools. Catholic youth often describe service to others as one of the things they most like about Catholicism. However, compared to Protestants, “Catholic volunteerism does not persist into adulthood.” Why? For one thing, say these researchers, the Catholic school structure falls away; for another, “The lack of an avenue to civic life through commitment to other Catholic institutions, including parishes, may also affect overall levels of volunteering for Catholic school students after secondary school. These students may become disconnected from broader Catholic institutions and social networks that sustain volunteerism behavior.”

This speculation is consistent with a landmark 2001 study by a team of Catholic sociologists, Young Adult Catholics. The authors recommend that “ways must be provided in which young adults can become meaningfully involved in Church life … Many of our respondents complained of the absence of programs and activities for them, and especially for single adults in parish settings.”

All these studies point to the necessity of building up parish life with activities that pull in people beyond Mass attendance and that address the needs of young adults—for many reasons, including to inculcate the values and habits of civic engagement. The process is not sequential but mutually reinforcing, because some of those parish extracurriculars and many of the activities that will interest young adults are those involving outreach to the community.

Sadly, the alarm about disconnected young adults has been sounded for at least two decades now, and not enough is being done, as Michelle Loris recently argued in this space. And the U.S. Catholic Church at the national level and in many dioceses and parishes aspires to look more and more like the Evangelicals, which is likely to further suppress civic outreach. We Catholics should not squander our rich tradition of social activism and youth volunteerism. The Good Samaritan beckons us.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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