Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Challenging assumptions about young Catholics


The Catholic hierarchy in the United States is very concerned about religious illiteracy and its link to dissent from church teachings. This concern contains two important assumptions: that religious illiteracy is higher among younger Catholics than among older ones, and that religious illiteracy fosters disagreement with church teachings. But, is there any empirical basis for these assumptions? Is religious illiteracy really more widespread among younger Catholics than it is among older ones? Is there really a link between illiteracy and disagreement with church teachings? We explored these questions using a combination of previous research and results from our 2005 survey. The results raise serious doubts about both assumptions.

Illiteracy among young Catholics?

Catholics raised in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s learned their faith by memorizing the questions and answers in the Baltimore Catechism. It was not surprising then that in the early 1960s, more Catholics (74 percent) than Protestants (55 percent) said they could recite the Ten Commandments (see Stark and Glock, 1968).

However, in the same 1960s study, Catholics scored lower than Protestants on many other measures of religious knowledge. For example, Catholics were only half as likely as Protestants (22 percent versus 44 percent) to score high on an index measuring knowledge of Old Testament prophets. On an index of scriptural knowledge, 40 percent of Protestants, but only 14 percent of Catholics, scored high. Citing data from a 1954 Gallup poll, the researchers reported that only 19 percent of Catholics (versus 59 percent of Protestants) could correctly identify the first book of the Bible, and only 28 percent (versus 36 percent of Protestants) knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. It appears that religious illiteracy is not an entirely new phenomenon among Catholics.

To see how widespread it is in today’s church, we asked American Catholics to agree or disagree with the following statement: “You often feel that you cannot explain your faith to others.” While this item is only one of many possible indicators of illiteracy, the responses are instructive.

Forty-nine percent of American Catholics said they often feel they cannot explain their faith to other people. Fifty-one percent disagreed. Which Catholics are most likely to say they have a difficult time explaining their faith to others? They tend to be less educated Catholics and lay people who are not highly involved in the church. They have a high school education or less (56 percent), are not married (56 percent), are not registered parishioners (55 percent), and attend Mass less than once a month (54 percent).

College graduates (42 percent), married Catholics (45 percent), registered parishioners (46 percent), and Catholics who attend Mass two to three times a month (41 percent) are least likely to say they cannot explain their faith to others. There are no important differences between males and females, those who pray daily and those who seldom if ever pray, regions of the country, or Catholics with no Catholic schooling and those with at least some.

But are Millennial or post-Vatican II Catholics any more likely than Vatican II or pre-Vatican II to say they have difficulty explaining their faith to others? The answer is no (see Table 13). Religious illiteracy is highest among pre-Vatican II Catholics, 59 percent of whom say they cannot explain the faith to others. Forty-nine percent of the Vatican II generation, 44 percent of post-Vatican II Catholics, and 47 percent of Millennials feel that way. The generational differences on this item are larger than the other demographic differences we have examined. They also do not support the assumption that religious illiteracy is higher among young Catholics than older Catholics. If anything, it is older, not younger, Catholics who have the hardest time explaining their faith to others.

Illiteracy and dissent

It is reasonable to hypothesize that persons who lack information about the Catholic faith might have beliefs that are at odds with church teachings. Yet some of the most well-known voices of dissent (such as Charles Curran, Hans Küng and Garry Wills) are among the most knowledgeable Catholics in today’s church. So, we asked, are people who say they have a difficult time explaining Catholicism to others any more likely to disagree with church teachings?

Research on Catholics in the early 1960s showed little or no relationship between religious knowledge and religious belief. Knowledge had virtually no bearing on “orthodoxy” (measuring belief in the existence of a personal God, the divinity of Christ, the authenticity of biblical miracles, and the existence of the devil) and “ethicalism” (an index measuring Catholics’ beliefs about the importance of “loving thy neighbor” and “doing good for others”). These findings (see Stark and Glock, 1968) lead us to suspect that religious illiteracy might have very little impact on dissent in today’s church.

To explore this issue, we cross-tabulated responses on our religious illiteracy question with a series of items having to do with the importance Catholics attach to the sacraments, belief that Mary is the Mother of God, social justice, the teaching authority of the magisterium, having a celibate clergy, prayer, helping the poor, the Resurrection, eucharistic adoration, and the church’s opposition to the death penalty, same-sex marriage and abortion. There was no consistent difference between those who agreed with our religious illiteracy question and those who disagreed with it. For example, 83 percent of those who agreed and 85 percent of those who disagreed said that belief in the Resurrection is “very important.” Seventy-five percent of those who agreed with it and 78 percent of those who disagreed said that sacraments such as the Eucharist are “very important.” Twenty-nine percent of those who agreed and 30 percent of those who disagreed said having a celibate clergy is “very important.” The differences on other items were comparable in size. Thus, our 2005 survey -- like Stark and Glock’s earlier study -- provides no support for the assumption that religious illiteracy contributes to dissent.


At a glance

Our findings are limited to one question about Catholics’ ability to explain the faith to others. Certainly, this is not the only way, or even the best way, to measure religious illiteracy. We need more research on the topic using a wider variety of questions before we will understand the multiple dimensions of the problem. In the meantime, however, the responses point to three conclusions.

First, religious illiteracy appears to be rather widespread. If half of Catholics do not feel they can explain their faith to others, we are inclined to agree with the bishops that religious illiteracy really is a problem in today’s church. The question is how much priority to give to illiteracy compared to other problems facing the church. Bishops have clearly made it a high priority. So far at least, lay people have not. A 2003 national survey shows that lay people give much higher priority to dealing with the problem of sexual abuse and doing something about the priest shortage than to the problem of religious illiteracy (see Davidson and Hoge in Commonweal, Nov. 19, 2004).

Second, religious illiteracy does not appear to be any more widespread among today’s young adults than among other Catholics. If anything, it is more pronounced among pre-Vatican II Catholics than among post-Vatican II Catholics and members of the Millennial generation. One implication of this finding is a recommendation that church leaders view religious illiteracy as an ongoing concern, not as a problem that is peculiar to the current generation of young adults. The church’s efforts to increase religious literacy should be oriented to Catholics of all ages, not just young adults.

Third, there appears to be little or no connection between illiteracy and dissent. This finding has two implications. If the church puts a priority on increasing religious literacy, it should not assume that its efforts in this area will necessarily have the effect of increasing compliance with church teachings. Understanding the faith and agreeing with its tenets seem to be two quite separate processes. Also, if church leaders believe dissent is a problem that needs to be fixed, they should look elsewhere for its root cause, not at illiteracy. In this effort, leaders need to appreciate the fact -- evident in this study and several other studies we have done -- that there is relatively little dissent on issues such as the Resurrection that lay people may not fully understand but consider core teachings of the church. Dissent is greater on issues such as the need for a celibate clergy, which lay people may very well understand but do not consider core teachings. Thus, dissent is not so much a result of a lack of understanding as it is a disagreement with specific teachings that lay people do not believe are central to the faith.

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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