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Posted on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 : 10:13 a.m.

Catholic changes: Are Catholics really congregationalists?

By Wayne Baker

0220ov Obamas serving at soup kitchen in DC.jpg

For millions of Americans, the Catholic Church is not half a world away in Rome. The Church is where people gather and meet the needs of the community. The Obamas are not Catholic, but when they want to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Washington D.C., they show up at So Others Might Eat, a Catholic community founded in 1970 by Father Horace McKenna, a Jesuit. (White House photos by Chuck Kennedy, top, and Pete Souza; released for public use.)

From Dr. Wayne Baker: While I am away, please welcome back regular guest columnist Terry Gallagher, whose past series range from Ayn Rand and James Joyce to baseball and aging. This week, Terry tackles the papal transition. Here’s Terry …

One reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s “renunciation” of the papacy last week has been a recitation of the great sins perpetrated by the Catholic church and its hierarchy, both in recent years and over the millennia.

No question about it, the Catholic church is guilty of many wrongs, and some of its leaders will have a lot to answer for at the Pearly Gates.

So the question you have to ask: Why would anyone stay? Why is anyone still Catholic?

One answer might be found in the local parish. In America, it’s been pretty well documented that most people don’t trust Congress, but like their own representative. And there are a lot of good reasons for that. Maybe there’s a parallel among Catholics, who may have given up on the hierarchy, but haven’t given up on their faith.

In a very helpful guide to the papal transition published by America, the Jesuits’ weekly magazine, the editors explained why Benedict’s resignation might not be such an earth-shaking event. “The life of the church, which is lived mostly at the parish level, continues,” they wrote. “Mass is celebrated and the sacraments are received.”

A good friend of mine, a lifelong Catholic and scholar of the church and its history, might be typical. After learning of some new abomination committed by another bishop in yet another place, my friend now describes himself as a “congregationalist,” meaning he still belongs to his parish, but not to the church anymore.

So is that where Catholics belong?

Whether you're Catholic or not, what local communities define your life?

Originally published at

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


Jim Osborn

Wed, Feb 20, 2013 : 4:34 p.m.

This is an extremely poor analogy, most American Catholics do not concern themselves with past mistakes of the "over the millennia", just as most American's do not feel guilt for things that their ancestors may have done hundreds of years ago, or even in the 1800s. We are much more concerned with today and not repeating the mistakes of the past. Since he mentions "recent years" most likely referring to the awful practice of some priests who committed sexual abuse against mostly young teens, this was wrong, and has been handled. I will mention that the incidence of this was not any more than typical public schools or many other institutions, but the Catholic Church is a big institution. There is no large institution on earth that has perfect people. How the some in the church hierarchy once handled it was shameful and should not happen again. Do people turn away from UM because of certain medical doctors, even after one was protected by the administration for months? No. The Catholic Church makes UM seem tiny. This author asks the wrong questions about why one might stay. It is similar to asking why someone would stay at UM after that doctor was arrested at the hospital. One would think, what a silly question, which it is. So is this authors questions, presented as it is. Yes, people stay because of their local church. But their local church has a structure that is similar to their formal local church before they moved to Ann Arbor. A good analogy would be an outline where upper things are the same but some lower tenants may have slight variances.