Sociology wasn’t always viewed kindly when applied to church matters. Cardinal Roger Mahony (now retired) of Los Angeles once assessed as “nonsense” research done in the early 1990s by Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin predicting an impending priest shortage. Mahony said the work did the church a “disservice and “presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. … We live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his church — not by sociologists.” The predictions of the priest shortage, by the way, were remarkably accurate and decades ahead of the reality.
Not all church leaders feel that way, of course, and it was a prominent archbishop, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, who gathered other bishops and superiors of religious communities and donated $50,000 to start CARA…
Even the most convincing data can be upsetting when it gets in the way of a favorite narrative. Gaunt cautions that CARA’s inquiries can lead to rather pedestrian conclusions. For instance, he said, the center began to notice a drop in baptisms. The major theories being advanced in some quarters to explain the phenomenon blamed secularization and an anti-religious U.S. culture.
What didn’t fit, however, was CARA’s understanding that the decline was occurring in areas with lots of new Catholics. “This is in Dallas or Houston or Phoenix,” said Gaunt. “There are no parishes you can walk to. They all drive. And they’re overwhelmed. And this is where we’re beginning to find the drop in the number of baptisms. The data would suggest it’s not secularization — it’s parking. If you’re there with a baby, and you’re going to have to show up an hour early to try to get a parking spot and get in,” he said, that could cut into attendance and those early sacraments.
Some good discussion of how data can be used used by religious organizations: sometimes it goes well and sometimes the data is not welcome. I would think large organizations would want as much information as they could get but there are several issues when social scientists get involved. One, data doesn’t interpret itself – it simply provides more information that has to be acted upon. Second, interpretations of the data data can contradict folk theories and threaten those who hold such ideas. Third, sociology can be viewed as antithetical to God’s work, either through its emphasis on society and humans or its tendencies toward liberal theories. Yet, hopefully good things can come from this marriage of sociological findings and church work.