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Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Study adds to understanding

This issue contains an imposing body of information that, given the benefit of three previous and similar surveys, adds weight and texture to an evolving image of American Catholics.

The church in the United States faces unprecedented crises, not only in the ongoing effects of the sex abuse scandal, which appears to be a deeper and more costly wound to the body of the church than most imagined it would be, but also in the priest shortage, the decreasing confidence in church leadership, the stirring among the laity for more access to decision-making and greater accountability from leaders, not to mention a growing financial emergency in a number of dioceses. In so many ways the institution is being challenged and even changed by forces that in the not too distant past would never have had an effect on church life.

In that context, then, we think it is valuable to have access to information that shows how these forces may be affecting Catholic life. Have these events shaken the faith? Have they changed attitudes about core teachings? What do Catholics consider important to the practice of faith? What differences of opinions exist across generational lines?

It is important to have information that begins to separate fact from impression. It is easy, in the heat of the splits and arguments that characterize too much of Catholic life today, to characterize all of the community by an event or anecdote or the opinions of one segment of the community.

A reality facing the Catholic community in coming years is the gradual but certain disappearance of the pre-Vatican II generation, Catholics who provided a kind of bridge between the sometimes-disorienting reforms of the 1960s council and Catholic practice as it had come to be expressed in the century before that universal gathering.

Concurrently, of course, the church experiences the influence of the Vatican II and now post-Vatican II generations, in which a trend toward a relaxed allegiance to the institution combined with an enduring attachment to core beliefs is shown to continue in the most recent survey.

The study, performed by the research team of William V. D’Antonio, Dean Hoge, James Davidson and Mary Gautier, is the fourth in a series done every six years since 1987 in cooperation with the Gallup Organization. This year’s was funded by the Louisville Institute, by a modest donation from National Catholic Reporter and by a grant from an anonymous donor.

Reassuring is the finding that eight in 10 Catholics affirm the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus as fundamental to their faith; the central role of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; and the importance of helping the poor.

Catholic leaders might want to investigate why they have apparently been so successful in convincing the community of those points, yet much less successful in their teaching on other matters such as abortion, the death penalty and contraception, especially among younger groups of Catholics.

Those planning the life of the community for the future might be aware of a growing lay sentiment seeking a greater role in the life of the church including its financial decisions. Laity seem fairly clear, too, in what adjustments they deem acceptable in confronting the growing priest shortage.

No survey, of course, will paint the full picture of a community nor adequately depict the deep strains of determination, fidelity and love that sustain the Catholic community through these trying times.

Someone once remarked that Christians live “at the intersection of mysterious freedoms, God’s and our own.” And so we do. It is, within the sphere of our freedom, ours to inquire, to try to understand, to plan and to puzzle, all in the light of God’s freedom and grace. It is among the many ways that Catholic Christians in the 21st century move along as a pilgrim people. Our hope is that this information will help us to better understand ourselves and the dynamics of the church, at least at the level of laity, and that the information will help us to fashion the journey of the future.

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

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