By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 21, 2008
The youngest Catholics may not be sitting in the pews, but they have picked up Jesus’ key message. Serving the poor is a core belief of the Catholic faith for some 91 percent of so-called “Millennial” Catholics, according to a survey done by Catholic University of America sociologists.
At the same time, the same group rarely makes it to weekly Mass.
In a twist, Catholics filling the pews today may have looser ties to the Catholic Church but hold onto its key beliefs, such as the importance of the sacraments and the belief in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
“It’s a different time. It’s a different tone,” said William D’Antonio, a fellow at the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University. “They see a different world than we did growing up in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Close to 100 people attended D’Antonio’s lecture at Our Lady of the Assumption Church Tuesday, Feb. 5. It was co-hosted by the parish’s adult religious education program and the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University. D’Antonio presented findings from the 2007 book “American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church,” which he co-authored with three other leading experts in the study of religious behavior and beliefs. The book studies the views of Catholics from 1987 to 2005 taken during five Gallup polls, starting with Catholics raised in the pre-Vatican Council II church and concluding with what the study calls “Millennials,” those born from 1979 to 1987. Pollsters questioned by telephone more than 800 people in each of the surveys. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The Catholic Church has undergone a tumultuous time in recent years. From the sexual abuse scandal to the death of a popular pope, John Paul II, church members have not been unaffected by what is going on around them. The Catholic sociologists examined the attitudes of Catholics that will shape the future church.
Among the findings:
• Catholics raised in the post-Vatican Council II environment, people born from 1961-1978, make up the biggest share of church members at 40 percent.
• Small Christian communities are a hopeful sign and a popular choice for young people, where they can talk about their faith, express doubts and grow spiritually. Weekly Mass attendance of 18 to 29-year-olds is 26 percent, but among small Christian communities, attendance is 90 percent.
• About one of three Catholics goes to weekly Mass, a 10 percent drop since the first survey.
Mark Dannenfelser, OLA parish director of religious education, said the church message of serving the poor is being heard. Dannenfelser said a question he always asks church members on hot-button issues is “tell me more.” It opens a conversation with people and builds relationships, he said. “The church is a bunch of relationships,” he said.
Nick Meyer, of Our Lady of the Assumption, said the talk left him wanting to learn about the positions taken by the church, especially to read the church’s views on birth control, “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI on married love and procreation.
Lynn LaBudde, a parishioner of St. Brendan the Navigator Church, Cumming, and a theology student at Spring Hill College, said the surveys give church leaders an opportunity to look deeper at the issues facing the church. “I thought it was great and really refreshing,” he said.
The insights of the small Christian communities are especially helpful because they can lead people from the margins of the parish to ministry, said LaBudde, who is a member of a small group at his parish.
Dorothy Polchinski, the director of Atlanta Archdiocese Young Adult Ministry, said young adults want to learn about the faith.
“The church teaches that parents are the primary catechists. Yet many parents themselves have lacked proper faith formation. So we now have a generation of young adults that don’t really understand their faith—many go through the motions and have a deep conviction of their Catholic identity, but seem to lack articulation of what they believe and why they believe it,” said Polchinski in an e-mail.
She said the archdiocese offers programs for young people to learn about their faith, from Theology on Tap, where conversations about God are talked about in bars and restaurants, to Revive, with its upbeat, evangelical-style presentation of Catholicism. Some programs draw a handful of people, while others, like Revive, attract a few hundred young adult Catholics, she said.
Overall, D’Antonio said there is a “growing gap” between the views of the laity and church officials, and commitment to the church falls from the older generations to the younger.
For instance, on the issue of sex before marriage, among the oldest and most traditional Catholics in 1987, close to half said church leaders should have the final say on the issue. By 2005, among the same group, that number dropped to 30 percent. It is even more problematic for the youngest Catholics where 2 percent agreed that church leaders should have the final say on the issue.
Increasingly, people want a dialogue with bishops and other church leaders on moral issues.
All the studies show that people are not refuting core teachings about Jesus Christ, said D’Antonio, but about life issues where their experiences differ from church teaching.
About 30 percent of Catholics want a talk about human sexuality and other issues with church leaders, up from 5 percent when the question was first asked, said D’Antonio.
People do not find church teachings on these moral issues convincing, so they don’t believe church leaders should have the final word surrounding human sexuality, he said. “It’s issues of lived experience. (Church teachings) are less and less persuasive,” he said.
The experiences are on many fronts, said D’Antonio. People may have gay friends or family members, so the church teaching that same-sex relationships are wrong does not match what they encounter, he said. Parents may see their children divorce and remarry without an annulment and don’t understand why they cannot receive the Eucharist.
The time-lapse surveys show people want to talk about these things, he said.
“The most important shift over time was not a move to individuals and their own consciences, but to both church leaders and Catholic laity working together in some kind of dialogue,” he said.
The divide between church teaching and the views of Catholics is most clear with the youngest population of Catholics, he said. The dilemma facing the church is whether leaders reach out, especially to the young because they won’t pay attention if people don’t talk with them, he said.
D’Antonio said people should not be afraid to discuss matters of doctrine that affect their lives. He concluded his remarks by reminding the audience about the Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium.”
Reading from it, D’Antonio said, “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One … cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to the supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the people as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity,’ it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”