In the case of women's commitment to the Catholic Church, the overall story is one of stability, and even slightly increased commitment, rather than further decline.
Much has been written in recent years about the declining hold of traditional church boundaries on Americans’ religious and spiritual beliefs and their understanding of religious truth and how it is mediated. Catholics are not immune to these cultural changes. An overwhelming majority in our survey, 88 percent, agree that how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic (with 56 percent of these strongly agreeing).
American Catholics continue to maintain a moderate to high degree of commitment to the church. As in past surveys, we assessed our respondents’ commitment by combining their responses to three separate questions: “How important is the Catholic church to you personally?”; “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you go to Mass?”; and “On a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 indicating you would never leave the church, and 7 indicating you might leave the church, where would you place yourself?” We categorized highly committed Catholics as those who said that the church was the most important or among the most important parts of their life, who attended church once a week or more often, and who placed themselves at either one or two on the seven-point scale. Using these high-threshold criteria, 19 percent of our respondents were highly committed Catholics, an additional two-thirds (66 percent) were moderately committed, and 14 percent had low levels of commitment. Clearly, for Catholics, moderate commitment is the norm.
The term “cafeteria Catholic” has been used for many years to refer to the fact that Catholics tend to selectively prioritize certain aspects of Catholic theology and tradition while seeing other strands as comparatively less important to the practice of Catholicism. The phrase is typically used dismissively and has prompted some church leaders and observers to suggest that the church might be better off if Catholics who do not subscribe to the full orthodoxy of Catholicism were pruned from its ranks. The sociological reality, however, is more complicated. Catholic orthodoxy is itself heavily encrusted with doctrinal shifts, institutional changes and theological nuance, characteristics befitting Catholicism’s long history and constituting a pluralistic tradition that allows for more thoughtful individual autonomy than some might assume. Additionally, the doctrinal selectivity of contemporary Catholics is much more constrained by, and attuned to, the Catholic tradition than the cafeteria metaphor suggests.