CATHOLIC sociologists this week said Cardinal Heenan did not know what he was talking about when he criticised Sociology at the recent Church Leaders' Conference. They have called for a British Institute of Religious Sociology.
Professor I erence Morris, of the Sociology Department of the London School of Economics, said that while the Cardinal's criticisms of a German survey showed an "embarrassing ignorance of sampling technique" he objected most of all to the Cardinal's reference to "the alarming number of students opting for Sociology courses."
"I can only presume it is alarming to him and his fellow bishops," said Professor Morris. "He takes up the position of asking what need do we have of Sociology as we already know what needs to he known. He gives the impression that he believes thought to be one of the most dangerous activities, now that the 'remedy of the State' is no longer available."
Sociology was repressed in the Soviet Union, just as new ideas were in the Renaissance, said Professor M or rts. Authorities believed social scientists should not keep asking unnecessary questions about the basis of authority.
Mr. Anthony Spencer, an English Sociology lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, said the Cardinal's remarks followed the general stand taken by the Catholic Church in Britain.
"I helped to found the Newman Demographic Survey in 1963, which had then a staff of 12, but closed after a year through lack of financial support. I believe it was deliberately starved of funds by Church authorities," said Mr. Spencer.
It would have helped to deepen understanding of society, the Church's problems and relationships to non-Catholics, he said. It could have been especially helpful in reevaluating the huge investment the Church made in education. Perhaps some of the money would be more effectively spent in having specialised pastoral care in the marriage field.
Mr. Spencer pointed out that the crisis faced by religion had been met by the setting up of 40 Catholic Social Research Centres throughout the world, linked through FERES — the International Federation of Institutes for Social and SocioReligious Research, centred in Louvain, Belgium.
Fr. Robert Bogan, a lecturer in Sociology at Surrey University, who is writing a thesis on the functions of priests, said the Cardinal had mixed up Sociology with surveys. A survey was a technique for gathering information. Sociology was concerned with its interpretation.
Cardinal Heenan argued at the Church Leaders' Conference that a German Catholic survey in which 20 per cent of German Catholics filled up their forms represented only one-fifth of German Catholic opinion.
1t the survey was a random sample, the sample carefully planned to contain proportionate numbers of each age group and class in each area, it would be proved to be almost perfectly representative. A questionnaire filled in by every member of the population is no more representative than a carefully selected sample of one-tenth that size, Further explanation would involve the laws of statistical probability and the checks employed by the sampling organisation to weed out such bias as the fact that those who fill in forms were more likely to be of the middle classes.
The proliferation of "opinion polls and clergy popularity contests" feared by the Cardinal were the playthings of politicians and the mass media — and of the most marginal interest to sociologists.
Peter Berger, author of the Penguin book "Invitation to Sociology" a sociology of religion specialist who was, I believe, employed for a time by the Vatican, makes the same distinction in his book. He says statistics are "raw material," and meaningful only in terms of their much broader implications for an understanding of institutions and values in our society.
He said: "Most Sociologists have little more than a cookbook knowledge of statistics, treating it with about the same mixture of awe, ignorance and timid manipulation as a simple village priest would the mighty cadences of Thomist theology."
It is generally accepted that Sociology studies people's relationships with one another, society's institutions which ex press some of these relationships and the ideas which motivate people.
It is a distinctively modern form of consciousness which
has grown up from men's attempts to understand the world
around them as it changes at an ever-accelerating pace.
The old and apparently unchanging society, where one's role was virtually fixed from birth and all subscribed to a common set of values and beliefs, has melted away since the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
One of the most eye-opening and fruitful approaches to Sociology is off-puttingly termed the "phenomenological", which is explained in Peter Berger's book. Describing it, one may understand why people are apt to fear and condemn a subject which attracts the young in such "alarming" numbers.
The phenomenologists say that in every society man's freedom is greatly limited by a series of formal and informal
controls beginning with physical violence, of which the State normally has the monopoly in terms of its army and police force.
Next there is the economic system which one has to accept to earn a living. Within one's work or friendship group there are the mechanisms of gossip, ridicule and persuasion enforcing conformity, aided by a universal human desire to he accepted.
The ultimate danger of being ostracised or being "put in Coventry," they say, restrains those whose objections to the system are seen as a threat to those who live by it. The outer manifest control ring can be seen in the legal and political legislation of a country.
Apart from these controls there is the class system — the most important characteristic of modern society. From a person's class, one can predict everything from the sort of neighbourhood he lives in and the sort of friends he has, to the way he speaks and his hobbies, as well as the sort of school his children go to and the party he votes for.
As Peter Berger observed: "Our lives are not only dominated by the inanities of our contemporaries. but also by those of men who have been dead for generations." Unless of course one regarded history as a just and logical process of refinement.
Man lives in society, but he has already been socialised to accept that society and he challenges any interpretation of it which conflicts with conventional wisdom.
Our identity is socially dictated, we play a role as worker or family man and are accepted as such by our friends, whom we tend to choose because they bolster our image of ourselves — "birds of a feather."
Society can thus be viewed as a great game, existing institutions as quirks of history and accepted status systems. morality, and patterns of behaviour as the playthings of chance.
Knowledge of other societies, from South Sea Islanders to Indian castes, suggest a whole range of alternative and viable forms of government and marital arrangement, none of them clearly "the best."
As Pascal observed, what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees becomes error on the other, values are seen as relative and all authority questionable. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Sociology students are over-represented among the leaders of student demonstrations both in Britain and abroad. Man has never had so much power and technology under his control before. The future of the race is threatened on one hand by the risk of atomic war and on the other by a wasteful and growing consumption of the earth's limited stock of natural wealth, coupled with international pollution of air and water.
Last week Professor Andreski, the Reading University Sociologist, wrote in a national newspaper: "Western liberalism offers us the spectacle of a system which not only has given up the task of moral education. but actually employs vast resources and means of persuasion of unprecedented power to extirpate the customs, norms and ideals indispensable for its survival."
With problems like these, at a time when two-thirds of the world were undernourished while the rest had a problem keeping their weight down, sociology and especially sociology of religion, was never more essential.
Sociological consciousness is by no means limited to trained academics, and discussions at the National Conference of
Priests last month included references to Fr. Conor Ward's Liverpool thesis "Priests and People" and the work of educational Sociologists.
This week's Laity Commission report on the priest's role was prepared with the help of Fr. Graham Dann, a Sociologist, and Sociology is the first discipline the laity recommended to be included in seminary courses.
Fr. Bogan once organised a meeting in Cambridge to discuss the possibility of a Religious Sociology Institute, but those present felt the hierarchy were not keen on the idea.
Fr. Michael Gaine of Christ's College, Liverpool. started the Liverpool Institute of Social Studies with similar ambitions, but has not received backing. .
Even to outline the possibilities such an institution would offer the Church in Britain would require several books. That most Western European countries have such centres shows they at least have been convinced of their potential value.
With priests and church commissions finding increasing use for Sociologists, perhaps the Church in this country may decide: "If they can't beat them, it's better to join them."