|Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics|
Issue Date: September 30, 2005
Belief in church as mediator slips
By JAMES D. DAVIDSON
Those of us who are old enough to have been raised on the Baltimore Catechism remember learning that the church is an essential component of our relationship with God. God speaks to us through the church, especially the sacraments. And it is through the church, especially the sacraments, that we gain salvation. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church reasserts this view: The church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation (#1129).
But some church leaders say they sense that the traditional view of the church as a mediator might be declining. They suspect that Catholics might be adopting a more individualistic, or Protestant, view of their relationship with God. We decided to explore this possibility by examining the way Catholics think about and participate in the sacraments. Here is what we found.
The prevailing view
The vast majority of Catholics still affirm the importance of the sacraments. Seventy-six percent of our respondents said that sacraments such as the Eucharist are very important and another 20 percent said they are somewhat important. Less than 5 percent of respondents said the sacraments are not important. When asked to respond to The sacraments of the church are essential to your relationship with God, 52 percent strongly agreed, and 29 percent agreed somewhat, for a total of 81 percent. Only one-fifth of Catholics disagreed.
What about Catholics actual participation in the sacraments? Seventy-three percent of married Catholics said their marriages were approved by the church. Thirty-four percent go to Mass at least once a week, and another 30 percent attend one to three times a month. About one-third attend less than once a month. Other research we have done shows that about 43 percent of Catholics go to confession at least once a year (see DAntonio et al., 2001).
Thus, the results suggest that the traditional view of the church as a mediator is still widespread among American Catholics. A majority of Catholics think the sacraments are important, even essential, to their own relationship with God. Although lay people do not participate in the sacraments as much as clergy might like, most Catholics marry in the church, nearly two-thirds attend Mass at least once a month, and about four in 10 go to confession at least once a year.
But are Catholics views of the church changing? Are younger Catholics less likely than older Catholics to see the church as a mediator in their relationship with God?
Our previous research has documented sizable generational differences in Catholics beliefs and practices, with post-Vatican II Catholics having a more individualistic approach to faith and morals than pre-Vatican II Catholics (see Davidson et al., 1997; Froehle and Gautier, 2000; Hoge et al., 2001; DAntonio et al., 2001; and Davidson and Hoge, 2004). These studies led us to predict that younger Catholics would not be as inclined as older Catholics to see the sacraments as central to their relationship with God. Here is what we found (see Table 10).
There are no noteworthy differences in the generations responses to our question about the importance of sacraments such as the Eucharist. The lack of generational differences is not surprising, given the high level of consensus on the importance of the sacraments. However, there are sizable generational differences in the responses to all of our other questions. Sixty-three percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics strongly agreed that the sacraments are essential to their relationship with God. About half of the Vatican II generation (52 percent) and the post-Vatican II generation (51 percent) strongly agreed, and only 38 percent of Millennial Catholics strongly agreed.
The rate at which Catholics are marrying in or out of the church also varies by generation. Ninety percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, but only 70 percent of Vatican II Catholics, 66 percent of post-Vatican II Catholics, and 75 percent of Millennials were married in the church. Generation also affects Mass attendance rates. While 60 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics attend Mass at least once a week, only about one-third of Vatican II Catholics and one-quarter of post-Vatican II Catholics do. Only 15 percent of Millennials go to Mass on a weekly basis.
Two other items provide additional evidence of a trend away from the traditional view of the church as a mediator. Fifty-seven percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, but 68 to 77 percent of Vatican II, post-Vatican II and Millennial Catholics say one can be a good Catholic without marrying in the church. Sixty-nine to 76 percent of pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II Catholics, but 95 percent of Millennial Catholics, say one can be a good Catholic without attending Mass weekly.
These generational differences suggest that Catholics views of the church are changing. As the number of pre-Vatican II Catholics declines, it is very likely that the view of the church as a mediator also will decline. As the number of Millennial Catholics increases, there is likely to be some movement toward a more individualistic view of Catholics relationship with God.
A majority of Catholics report that the sacraments are important, even essential, to their relationship with God. They also tend to marry in the church, and sizable numbers go to confession and attend Mass on a pretty regular basis. Thus, the traditional view of the church as a mediator continues to be widespread among American Catholics.
It is especially widespread among pre-Vatican II Catholics. While it persists among some younger Catholics, the Millennial generation as a whole is far less likely to say that the sacraments are essential to their relationship with God and is least likely to attend Mass on a weekly basis. It also is most likely to say that one can be a good Catholic without participating in the sacraments. Thus, there is some empirical basis for church leaders sense that views of the church are changing.
These findings have at least two implications for church leaders. On the one hand, it is reasonable to assume that young adults who do see the sacraments as important will have the greatest personal interest in the church that provides them. As a result, they are likely to take on leadership roles in the church and perpetuate the view of the church as a mediator. However, we also should expect that a growing number of young adults will have more individualistic view of their relationship with God and will attach less importance to the institutional church. It remains to be seen how Catholics with such different views of the church will relate to one another and to the church in the years ahead.
National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005
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