It is always flattering when someone takes the time not only to read one’s work, but to respond thoughtfully to it. In this case, I am especially pleased to have two graduate students in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame respond to my work on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). I began this project while an assistant professor of sociology at Notre Dame and very much had in mind the idea that the Catholic university in general, and Notre Dame in particular, is a place “where the church does her thinking.” From the outset, I wanted to bring a sociological perspective and methodology to bear on questions of central importance to the church. I targeted the work not only to professional sociologists inside the ivory tower but to Catholic intellectuals outside of sociology and practitioners in the trenches. To the extent that these two young Catholic intellectuals were able to engage my 2012 article in the Review of Religious Research, “Initiation Rites in the Contemporary Catholic Church: What Difference Do They Make?” (54:401-20), I consider my efforts a success.
Both Laura Taylor and Michael Altenburger grasp the essentials of my findings quite well: Those who are initiated in parishes that more fully implement the normative vision of the RCIA – as articulated in the ritual text and the US Catholic bishops “National Statutes for the Catechumenate” – experience more growth in ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice. They also raise some important questions that I will address, if not always answer, here. For some of my responses, I will draw on data that are not presented in this article, but do find their way into two books I have written on the RCIA, Real Stories of Christian Initiation: Lessons for and from the RCIA (with Sarah MacMillen and Kelly Culver, The Liturgical Press, 2006) and Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in March 2014).
Every sociological study requires choice to be made in the process of data collection and analysis. Altenburger draws attention to this fact – and to the practical implications of it – in questioning my application of the label “spiritual practice” to private prayer and Bible reading but not to Mass attendance and participation in spiritual groups (which I call “ecclesial involvement”). In reality, all of the activities I asked respondents about could be seen as forms of spiritual practice, so the distinction really is about more communal vs. more individual practices. As Alternburger suggests, thinking about the distinction in this way offers a useful perspective on the aggregate decline in the more individualized practices in comparison to the aggregate rise in more communal practices from Time 1 (beginning of the RCIA process) to Time 2 (after initiation).
Alternburger’s comments also lead me to emphasize some nuances in my findings about ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice. For example, it is the case that at the end of the process the average level of Bible reading was 4.29 compared to 4.82 at the start. But 4.29 is still above the category “once a month” (=4). So, a lower level of Bible reading does not necessarily mean a low level (recognizing that the definition of “low” is subject to debate here). Also, on every survey question that went into the ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice dependent variables, there was a range of individual change over the course of the RCIA process, from growth to decline (see Table 2, column 2). Consider for example the question, “How often, if ever, do you participate in any spiritual group in the parish?” Response categories range from 1 (never) to 7 (more than once a week). Across all respondents, the average level of participation grew by 55%. However, at the individual level, the range of changes was from -5 to 6. That means that at least one individual in the sample dropped almost the entire range of the scale (5 points out of 7) over the course of the RCIA process. The same is true of the spiritual practice items. Both private prayer and Bible reading have ranges of change from -5 to 5 on a 7 point scale. Over the entire sample, there were slight decreases in these spiritual practice items, but at the individual level, some people grew considerably in these individualized spiritual practices and some declined considerably. The question is, what explains the difference between the individuals who reported growth and those who reported decline?
These nuances highlight the fact that at its empirical core sociology is a probabilistic science that seeks to explain patterns of change. Examination of the statistical model summarized in Figure 2 reveals that those individuals who are initiated in parishes that more fully implement the RCIA process are not only more actively engaged with their parish communities, they also grow more in their level of (individualized) spiritual practice. That is, there is a positive association between level of implementation and level of spiritual practice, ceteris paribus. Of course, from a practical perspective every individual counts (in fact, the one lost sheep may be of more concern than the other 99 in the flock); this finding may point to a limitation in the usefulness of sociology to those working in the trenches.
As in any sociological study, one must also be somewhat modest in the conclusions drawn from admittedly limited data and probabilistic statistical models. To wit: When Taylor writes that “the RCIA process can make a significant, positive difference in the ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice of initiates,” she is faithful to my conclusions. But when she continues on to say “but only in parishes that have more fully implemented initiation programs,” she goes beyond what my data say and what I would be comfortable concluding.
Related to this, I note that my fellow sociologist and student of the RCIA Michael McCallion has written a comment in which he points out that in some urban communities an extensive RCIA process can be an obstacle to initiation for people, especially those who are already baptized Christians and/or well-catechized and/or already part of the church community. Here again, at least from the perspective of my RRR article, it is a question of probabilities. Not every person who is initiated through a fully implemented RCIA process will experience growth, and a “school year” model of initiation does not inevitably lead to decline. Indeed, in my book Real Stories of Christian Initiation, I discuss Gail Hirsch, a faithful Lutheran who wished to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church but was made to follow the RCIA “program” at St. Mary’s, including spending over a year in the “catechumenate.” St. Mary’s is an exurban church with a well-implemented but ultimately reified RCIA process that made little room for individual discernment and difference. On average, its process led to growth in ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice, but not for every individual.
In her concluding thoughts, Taylor raises some very important questions. I regret that I cannot answer any of them based on my empirical data. She asks how “the religiosity of RCIA Catholics compares to that of the rest of their parish community?” At the outset of my study, I imagined having a random sample of parishioners complete the same survey I gave to those in the RCIA process so that I could answer this question directly. Unfortunately, the practical difficulties and financial cost of doing this ruled it out for me, though perhaps another interested scholar with deeper pockets (hello Chris Smith?) could design and implement such a study.
Even more interesting, and harder to answer, is Taylor’s question: does the work of parish ministers through RCIA “have a positive effect on parishioners’ (not just initiates’) ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice?” Here we would not only need to know the level of parishioners’ ecclesial involvement and spiritual practice, but also have some way of measuring the effect of the RCIA process on it. Not at all easy, even using methods other than closed-ended surveys. Indeed, trying to establish cause and effect in this case is probably impossible, since the RCIA is reflected in the parish community and the parish community is reflected in the RCIA process.
That said, I agree with Altenburger’s sense – and offer some evidence in Becoming Catholic to support the idea – that the RCIA process offers a host of opportunities “to integrate new members and to reinvigorate ‘old’ members.” It does not happen in every case, but it can and does happen – and so it is worth some effort to try to make it happen intentionally rather than accidentally.
Last, Taylor raises what is surely the most common question I have been asked over the years about the RCIA process: “Yeah, but . . . does it last?” That is, do those who are initiated into the Catholic Church through the RCIA process remain involved in the church? I have heard many anecdotal accounts given by RCIA directors about individuals for whom initiation at the Easter Vigil marks the end of their ecclesial involvement. And given the blood, sweat, and tears many ministers put into the RCIA process, this experience must be profoundly discouraging. So I did try to collect data that would answer this question and I discuss the outcome of my effort in Becoming Catholic. In 2006 I attempted a four-to-five year follow-up survey, one page in length, of the 167 individuals for whom I had two complete waves of data (including the 159 who completed the initiation process and are covered in my RRR article). The results were disappointing to say the least. Of the 167 mail surveys I sent out, I received just eight responses. But just over half of the letters were returned to me as undeliverable because the individuals had moved and their forwarding orders had expired. This led me to wonder whether a large segment of the “disappearing” RCIA initiates are not involved in the parishes they were initiated at because they had moved. I cannot answer this definitively, but it is worth some further investigation by some young, energetic sociologist or theologian.
I would add in concluding that I recognize a closed-ended survey can only capture part of what those who seeking to become Catholic and those who work in RCIA ministry attempt to achieve in the adult initiation process. In Becoming Catholic, I offer a more comprehensive analysis of the RCIA based not only on data from the closed-ended surveys that form the basis for my RRR article, but also dozens of open-ended interviews with individuals in the RCIA process and RCIA directors, and field work in six parishes that Sarah MacMillen, Kelly Culver, and I observed in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend from August 2001 through June 2002. I use these data to address several specific questions: First, concerning motivation – of the innumerable options available in the American religious landscape today, why do some people choose Roman Catholicism? Second, concerning catechesis and formation – once individuals enter the RCIA process, what do they learn about Catholicism and how do they learn to be Catholic? Third, concerning incorporation – does the initiation process actually do what it claims it does, namely, make those becoming Catholic a part of the body of the church? Finally, concerning outcomes – how do the individuals who become Catholic change over the course of the RCIA process – qualitatively as well as quantitatively! – and does the initiation process itself explain that change? In answering these questions, I take the reader on a sociological journey through the RCIA process in a far more reaching manner than what I was able to present in this article.
For those immediately interested in more material from this project, Real Stories of Christian Initiation presents case studies from five of the six parishes we observed. Based on those case studies, my co-authors and I draw lessons for the RCIA from our observations and analysis, as well as lessons from the RCIA for the church as a whole. Real Stories is, therefore, very much directed to those who have a practical interest in the RCIA.