Brian and Gary’s recent posts dealing with the current debates over contraception and health care have highlighted several of the important sociological elements of the debate–issues of the sacred versus profane, the decline of religious authority and the framing of issues. Much of the discourse around this debate seems to be about religious freedom and what it means in the constitutional sense but also how average people interpret it.
Elsewhere on the internet my own Facebook newsfeed includes updates from sociologists, theologians, historians, and lay Catholics that I know from contexts other than scholarly research, and of course many non-Catholics. Over the last few weeks I have seen many posts of a particular type, from a range of folks, that are usually some variation on “we are in a period of profound economic hardship, why are the bishops wasting time on contraception when the focus should be on poverty!” These sorts of comments, of course, over simplify. There are a great number of church leaders who speak out on BOTH issues of poverty and on issues of contraception and abortion. But, they do raise an empirical question that has been examined by sociologists. That is, “why do organizations adopt some reforms/take up some issues, but not others?”
In the context of contemporary American Catholicism, Melissa Wilde addressed this question in her thorough analysis of Vatican II. She argues that this was not an instance of an institution responding to pressures from below. Indeed, if it were, there would have been changes to contraception policy during the council. Instead, she outlines two sociological factors that shaped which reforms were adopted: responses to concerns about legitimacy and the form of organization and network ties between various delegations. Mark Chaves explored similar factors in his sociological account of why some denominations began to allow women to be ordained while others did not. As both of these cases illustrate, it is important to consider what Gary called “the size and shape of the wrestling ring”.
There is also a host of work on social movement mobilization that considers why (and when) movements emerge. These range from theories about resource mobilization (i.e. movements are successful when they can muster enough funds and grassroots engagement) to theories about the “political opportunity structure” or “countermovements” (i.e. a space created for a movement to mobilize when the government or another movement takes a position that is of concern).
These resources will not provide definitive predictions about what factors would lead to a change in the official position on birth control or to having “economic justice” be the issue around which the Bishops and the government clash and create headlines. However, they do offer useful sociological starting points for those who want to understand the process of change within religious organizations.