WASHINGTON—In a major new study of post-baby boom Catholics ages 20 to 39, researchers have found nine in 10 people who were confirmed as adolescents have kept the faith of their youth, and three in four said they could not imagine belonging to any other Church.
The findings, reported Nov. 6 at the annual joint meeting of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, stand in stark contrast to a similar study of mainline Protestants finding large numbers abandoning the Church as young adults.
The new study also found Catholic identity remains strong despite high rates of intermarriage.
While denominational boundaries may be vanishing among conservative and liberal Protestants, there is little evidence of a Protestant-Catholic melting pot, researchers found.
“I went into this study... with the idea the Catholic scene is going to replay the mainline scene,” said Dean Hoge, a Catholic University of America sociologist involved in both studies. “It took me by surprise.”
Hoge and colleagues William Dinges of Catholic University, Notre Dame Sister Mary Johnson of Emmanuel College in Boston, and Juan Gonzalez Jr. of California State University at Hayward conducted telephone interviews of 427 non-Hispanic Catholics and 421 Latino Catholics in 1997.
In the 1990 study of Protestants, Hoge, Benton Johnson of the University of Oregon and Donald Luidens of Hope College in Holland, Mich., interviewed 500 people, ages 33 to 42, who were confirmed in Presbyterian Churches in the 1950s and 1960s. Only 29% remained active Presbyterians. Twenty-three percent joined other Churches and 48% were classified as “unchurched,” meaning they were either unaffiliated or attended church fewer than six times a year.
In the new study of Catholics, Dinges reported, “First, there is no evidence that young adult Catholics today are a generation of irreligious scoffers.”
Despite an intermarriage rate of 50% for non-Hispanic Catholics and 24% for Latino Catholics, only 10% of the respondents reported leaving Catholicism, and of that number only 4% reported they are non-religious, the researchers said. Six percent left for other Christian Churches.
Three-quarters of non-Hispanic Catholics and 81% of Hispanic Catholics said they could not imagine being anything other than Catholic. And more than two-thirds of each group said there is something very special about being Catholic which you can't find in other religions.
In defining some elements of their faith, about nine in 10 current Catholic respondents said the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass. Nearly nine in 10 said Catholics have a responsibility to end racism and more than three-quarters said they have a duty to close the gap between the rich and the poor.
Johnson said some religion scholars, who predicted as many as 50% of young adults would no longer consider themselves Catholic, were “stunned” by the results.
The 10% of those contacted for the study who are no longer Catholic “are more theologically conservative, less individualistic, and less relativistic than the Catholics,” reported Hoge.
The researchers said this discovery “was an unexpected finding” because the earlier research on young adult Protestants had brought exactly the opposite result—those who had left the denomination they were raised in “were less conservative and more relativistic in religious beliefs.”
“The non-Catholics in the present study were more firmly Christian than the Catholics, not less so,” the team reported. “They have not fallen away from the Christian faith; rather they have switched Churches or kept a personal religion while rejecting Catholic churchgoing.”
Interfaith marriage was the main reason most ex-Catholics gave for having left the Church.
Among those who remain Catholic, 75% of the Euros and 81% of the Latinos agreed with the statement, “I cannot imagine myself being anything other than Catholic.”
However, 64% agreed that “one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass,” although Church law says Catholics are obliged to worship every Sunday and on certain holy days.
In addition, 87% thought the Church “should allow women greater participation in all ministries,” although recent Church statements have called the exclusion of women from priestly ministry an infallible teaching pertaining to the deposit of faith.
While 55% of the current Catholics reported attending Mass weekly or at least twice a month, only 37% of the Euros and 42% of the Latinos said they had gone to confession within the past two years.
In response to a series of other questions on prayer or devotional activities within the past two years, responses included:
• Kept religious images in the home: Latinos 83%, Euros 61%.
• Wore medals, scapulars, or other devotional items: Latinos 70%, Euros 51%.
• Said the rosary: Latinos 64%, Euros 46%.
• Read the Bible at home: Latinos 58%, Euros 53%.
• Made the Way of the Cross: Latinos 44%, Euros 29%. (RNS—Religious News Service and CNS—Catholic News Service)