Frontiers

Examining Religion's Past With an Eye on the Present

Associate Professor of Sociology Melissa Wilde looks to policies of the past and how they've shaped the current religious landscape.
November 2010

What's the next best thing to being a fly on the wall at the Second Vatican Council? For Melissa Wilde, Associate Professor of Sociology, it was being granted access to the Vatican Secret Archives. At work on her book Vatican II at the time, a study of the Council's passing of the biggest changes in the Church since the Reformation, it was essential Wilde examine not only the overall vote totals that had been released by the Vatican, but individual bishops' votes.

"I sent the Vatican archivist an email—no one had requested this information before. Luckily a non-cleric academic had replaced 'Bulldog,' the previous archivist who was known for his strict policies on access," Wilde laughs. "He sat me in a secure room with nothing but a pencil and opened the book to the elusive voting statistics—it was one of the most exciting moments in my research career."

Wilde, equipped with the data she gathered in Vatican City, spent the better part of two years building an electronic database. She then categorized the bishops' countries according to the prevalence and influence of Catholicism in them, and found four regions with very distinct votes: monopolistic countries such as Italy and Spain; formerly monopolistic countries in Latin America; countries with large Protestant populations like Germany, Netherlands, and the U.S.; and missionary countries in Africa and Asia.

"I sent the Vatican archivist an email—no one had requested this information before. Luckily a non-cleric academic had replaced 'Bulldog,' the previous archivist who was known for his strict policies on access. He sat me in a secure room with nothing but a pencil and opened the book to the elusive voting statistics—it was one of the most exciting moments in my research career."  – Melissa Wilde

"The Second Vatican Council saw a decentralization of the Church because bishops from Europe and North America, who prioritized ecumenism (or bettering relations with Protestants), allied with those from Latin America, who prioritized economic justice and reaching the poor and unchurched. These same bishops also allied with missionary countries like Africa and Asia who supported ecumenical, justice and marketing-oriented reforms. As a result of these alliances, progressive reform dominated the council."

One of the most important reforms to pass, which Wilde discusses in Vatican II, was the Declaration of Religious Freedoms. The Declaration stated that all individuals had the right to choose their religion of worship, when previously Catholicism was seen as the only valid choice. Another such reform led to the easing of Catholic marriage annulments. Prior to the council, a Catholic divorcee was required to bring hard proof of marital transgression—refusal to procreate or deceptive practices, for example—to the annulment tribunal. Under reform, "love," specifically lack thereof, became an acceptable form of proof.

A recent American Sociological Review article entitled, "Religious Economy or Organizational Field? Predicting Bishops' Votes at the Second Vatican Council" examines two other Council votes that Wilde obtained that day in the Vatican Secret Archive: the vote on the Sources of Revelation from the first of the four council sessions and the first vote on the Blessed Virgin Mary from the second session.

One reform that didn't pass at the Council, and hasn't passed to this day, was birth-control liberalization. Wilde explains that this was likely a choice progressives made in order to avoid a hard sell in light of the other reforms they sought to pass, one they could make because Protestants were not altogether concerned about it at the time. Intrigued by her realization that birth control was not an issue of central importance to Protestant-Catholic relations in the 1960s, Professor Wilde began a broader examination of birth-control in the American religious field, one that took her even further back into history.

"The central question of my new research is, 'What series of events led to the American religious climate today, where sex and gender are the most divisive components?' The study of topics like birth-control liberalization, as well as other, newer rifts—abortion, for example—offers unique insight into the current religious landscape in America, and how different religious denominations use ideology to shape both secular and religious politics."

In a forthcoming paper, Wilde examines how beliefs in "race suicide" and the "social gospel" circa 1930 determined whether a religious group liberalized early on the issue of birth control. The Protestant Episcopal Church, for example, deemed itself progressive even though it sought the liberalization of birth-control as a means of limiting the birth-rate for "undesirables." This strategy was widely acknowledged in circulated literature.

"The birth rate among almost all Mainline Protestant denominations was either stagnant or diminishing. This phenomenon, referred to as 'race suicide,' saw the 'progressive' denominations using strategies that greatly differ from our definition of progressive today."

In addition to support for eugenics, Wilde also finds that in order for a group to openly pressure the government to liberalize on birth-control, they also needed to believe in the "social gospel"—an anti-poverty, community-focused movement that believed Jesus would only return for the second coming when poverty had been eradicated.