Study finds many young Catholics stay with the church despite disagreeing on some issues

Author: Peter Steinfels

Young Catholics are different. Everyone has been saying that for years, and with good reason.p. Roman Catholicism has undergone enormous changes since the early 1960’s when the Second Vatican Council authorized major changes in rituals and a recasting of venerable practices and teachings. Common sense dictated that Catholics coming of age since then would be different.p. But how different? In what ways different? Roughly 20 million American Catholics are in their 20’s and 30’s — 40 percent of the adult Catholic population - and most opinions about them have been based largely on anecdotes and impressions.p. From now on, those opinions will have to be checked against “Young Adult Catholics,” recently published by the University of Notre Dame Press . Using the records of urban, suburban and rural parishes, four scholars identified individuals who as adolescents had been confirmed in the Catholic Church in the 1970’s and 80’s and, by 1997, would be between the ages of 20 and 39.p. They tracked down a representative sample of more than 800 of these men and women and interviewed them about their religious histories and their beliefs and practices. And in view of the swelling number of Latino Catholics, the sampling was designed to allow accurate comparisons between Latinos and non-Latinos who had been confirmed.p. The authors offer an important proviso: Probably 30 percent to 40 percent of non-Latino Catholics and 60 percent to 70 percent of Latino Catholics in this age group were never confirmed. Despite the book’s title, then, the sample does not represent all young adults who were reared Catholic but rather a group that appears somewhat above average in education and exposure to church life.p. Some of the results were surprising. “Since we had read so much about Latinos leaving the Catholic Church, we expected that more Latinos than non-Latinos would have left,” the authors write. “But this is not the case. The rates of leaving were nearly the same.”p. In fact, the rates of leaving for both groups were relatively low- approximately 10 percent.p. “The vast majority have remained Catholic and probably will stay Catholic,” the authors conclude, “even if they’re unhappy and even if they’re disconnected entirely from parish life.”p. At least compared with the confirmed mainline Protestants that one of the authors had previously studied, “Catholics have a kind of glue holding them closer to their church.”p. Furthermore, when it came to core beliefs about the divinity of Jesus, the presence of God in the sacraments and a life after death involving judgment, reward and punishment, 80 percent to 90 percent of these young adults adhered to the church’s traditional teachings.p. Indeed, most of those who no longer considered themselves Catholic had not gone in a secular direction. They were actually more religiously observant and more traditional in their beliefs than those who remained Catholic. Generally, they had left Catholicism not because of objections to it but because of intermarriage or an attraction to another church.p. The study also found that these Catholics overwhelmingly supported expanded roles for women and lay people in the church— more or less the liberal position in many church disputes— and that this was even more true of those who attended church regularly, were active in their parishes and held more traditional beliefs than of those who did not.p. Active and inactive alike, these Catholics tended to give their parishes high ratings, which surprised the researchers, who had heard many complaints about parishes in focus groups and intensive interviews.p. But other findings augured less well for the future of American Catholicism, especially considering that the group surveyed is above average in its religious upbringing.p. The study confirmed evidence of widespread disagreement with church teachings on sexual issues and of distancing from church authority and parish life. Many of these young adults echo the popular mantra of being spiritual but not religious. They are not angry at the church, but detached.p. Most fundamentally, only about one in five of these self-described Catholics was attending church weekly, raising the question whether their adherence to Catholic emphasis on sacraments was more theoretical than real.p. The authors estimate that only 10 percent of their sample constitute “core Catholics,” who attend Mass regularly, pray daily, are involved in their parishes, take papal teachings seriously (even when sometimes disagreeing with particulars) and do not separate their spirituality from the institutional church, its symbols and disciplines.p. Many others continue to hold their Catholicism as “something very special” without seeming able to identify that “something” or provide much evidence that they can hand it on to their children.p. The authors are not passing judgment. They note the turmoil that has affected the church internally and the pressures in the United States to affirm all faiths as equally true and good.p. The result, they conclude, is that “many young adult Catholics have a difficult time articulating a coherent sense of Catholic identity.”p. While these young Catholics like being Catholic, the authors continued, “they are not sure what is distinctive about Catholicism.”p. “Young Adult Catholics” is rich in other findings, not a few of them seemingly contradictory and hard to interpret. Perhaps because there are four authors— Dean R. Hoge and William D. Dinges from Catholic University of America in Washington, Sister Mary Johnson from Emmanuel College in Boston and Juan L. Gonzales Jr., from California State University at Hayward— the text sometimes swings between seeing the glass half-full and half-empty.p. In a phone conversation this week, Professor Dinges, who teaches religious studies (the other authors are sociologists), admitted to belonging to the half-empty school.p. “Our study is a flashing yellow light,” he said, a warning to the church to pay more attention to the young.p. Maybe their findings— and that warning— can be captured in a paraphrase of the line made famous by Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “Young adult Catholics never leave; they just fade away.”

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