Although religious commitment and church participation continue to be higher in the United States than elsewhere in most of the historically Christian world, in recent decades Catholic leaders and leaders of the so-called mainline Protestant denominations have been concerned about the apparent erosion of commitment among their own youth.
The first in-depth study of this large segment of the American population focused on Baby Boomers who had been confirmed in a mainline Presbyterian church during the 1960s. The results of this research were published in 1994 in Vanishing Boundaries, coauthored by Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens.
Hoge and a new team of collaborators have now published Young Adult Catholics, which presents the findings of the second major investigation of the religious commitment of younger Americans.
Both studies were based on a regionally balanced sample of young people who had been confirmed in selected parishes during a specified period of time. In both studies confirmands who could be located were interviewed by telephone and a carefully chosen subsample were later interviewed in person. Because of their growing presence among American Catholics, the investigators drew a special sample of Latinos.
Although the two studies have similar designs and include many of the same items, they differ in the way they measure the key indicator of the current relationship of the interviewees to the religious tradition they were reared in. In the Presbyterian study, the key indicator was church membership; in the present study it is self-identification as a Catholic. This discrepancy is warranted by the fact that Protestant and Catholic leaders focus on different things when they worry about the commitment of younger cohorts. But the discrepancy makes it hard to compare the findings of the two studies because the typologies used in presenting much of the data are based in part on indicators that are not comparable.
Catholic leaders will be relieved to discover that Catholic self-identification remains very high - 91 percent among Latinos and 89 percent among non-Latinos. Four-fifths of young Catholics consider themselves "spiritual persons." Virtually all of them pray to God and want their children to have a religious education. Compared to the Presbyterian sample, young Catholics are less likely to have dropped out (65% vs. 75%), more likely to have returned (54% vs. 49%), more likely to attend church weekly (60% vs. 47%), and more likely to hold traditional religious beliefs. They strongly affirm teachings concerning the Eucharist. The great majority of those on parish lists find their parishes spiritually satisfying. Young Catholics of all theological persuasions overwhelmingly agree that they have a duty to end racism, close the gap between rich and poor, and protect the environment. Large majorities believe there is "something special" about being Catholic and cannot imagine being anything else. It is inconceivable that like proportions of youth raised as Presbyterians hold similar views about their denomination.
Despite the prevalence of spiritual concerns and the persistence of Catholic identity, there is abundant evidence that many - perhaps most - young Catholics are not strongly committed to the Church and its mission. Only about three-fifths consider themselves "active Catholics." Many who are not active regard spirituality and churchgoing as two different things. Sixty-four percent believe a person can be a good Catholic without going to Mass. Almost half attend Mass no more than monthly and a quarter attend once a year or less. Only eight percent can be described as core Catholics, i.e., those who go to Mass frequently and are actively involved in the life of their parish. To make matters worse, it is almost certain that these figures actually inflate the real incidence of church participation among young adults raised as Catholics. The authors surveyed only those confirmed in adolescence, but they estimate that between 30 and 40 percent of non-Latino youth are not confirmed and that among Latinos the figures are as high as 60 or 70 percent.
There is also evidence of continuing erosion of orthodox belief. The authors report that Catholics in their 20s are a bit less orthodox than those in their 30s. This finding is in accord with other studies showing that in recent decades each new cohort of Catholics has been less orthodox than the preceding one. Moreover, on matters pertaining to religious choice, the sample is just as relativistic and individualistic as their Presbyterian counterparts. Upwards of 60 percent believe that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues, and more than 70 percent believe that "all the major world religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth." Like young Presbyterians, this large contingent of young Catholics prefer their own church but they do not believe it is "the one true religion." Although they want their children to have a religious education, they are reluctant to put pressure on them to become Catholics. An especially striking indicator that old religious boundaries are breaking down is that half of the married non-Latinos in the sample have spouses who are not Catholic. In fact, young Catholics are more likely to have a Protestant spouse than young Presbyterians are to have a Catholic spouse.
Young Catholics value religious education, but in-depth interviews revealed a widespread distaste for the religious education programs they had been exposed to in their home parishes. Some found the instruction "too rote, too mechanical;" others were bored by its lack of religious content; and many complained of poor teacher preparation. Perhaps this is one reason why large numbers of them "are not well-versed in Catholicism's core narratives" and find it hard to explain and justify their faith to non-Catholics, especially to evangelical Protestants, who tend to be well informed about their own faith and eager to lead others to it. About half the sample had never heard of the Second Vatican Council, and among those who had, few knew what it had accomplished. Even fewer were familiar with the American bishops' 1986 statement on economic justice or with the current pope's statement criticizing the culture of death.
The book contains a host of additional findings of interest to Catholics and other students of religion. The authors conclude with a set of recommendations for strengthening Catholic commitment and revitalizing parish life.
See also another review of this book by Richard J. REICHERT