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Sociologist’s new book shows Catholics changing with times

by Sherry Fisher - February 4, 2008

Young adult Catholics rely more on their own consciences and are less committed to practicing their faith than previous generations, according to a new book by William D’Antonio, a UConn professor emeritus of sociology.

D’Antonio wrote American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church with James Davidson, Dean Hoge, and Mary Gautier.

The book is based on four national Gallup Poll surveys conducted over 20 years that explore the views of the Catholic laity.

Participants were asked questions about their involvement with and commitment to the Roman Catholic Church, Catholic identity, and acceptance of church teachings.

The same questions were asked on each survey, conducted in 1987, 1993, 1999, and 2005.

Four generations were identified for the study: Pre-Vatican II Catholics, born in 1940 or earlier; Vatican II Catholics, born between 1941 and 1960; post-Vatican II Catholics, born between 1961 and 1978; and Millennials, born between 1979 and 1987. There were 875 people involved in the survey.

D’Antonio says the research revealed clear generational differences: “The older you are, the more traditional you are and the more you tend to look to the bishops and the Pope on all kinds of issues.”

Not surprisingly, he says, those who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church attend Mass more frequently. That held true over the four surveys.

He says Catholics born between 1941 and 1960 also had a fairly steady rate of Mass attendance, at about 40 percent, but only about 15 percent of Millennials attend church regularly.

D’Antonio, who taught sociology at UConn from 1971 to 1982, says there continues to be a high level of acceptance of the faith’s core elements across generations: the resurrection of Jesus; the Sacraments; Mary as Mother of God; and helping the poor.

“Those are the only four items where 70 percent of all Catholics, regardless of generation, agree that it’s very important to them as part of being Catholic,” he says.

D’Antonio adds, “While the Millennials have a low rate of Mass attendance, they have the highest commitment to serving the poor and needy, both in attitude and in how they live out this strong belief.”

Support has declined on adhering to the teachings of the church on issues such as abortion, opposition to the death penalty, and a celibate male clergy.

D’Antonio says the second most important research finding is the “increasing importance the laity give to their own conscience.

“By 2005, there isn’t an age group or gender where there is a majority saying that they look to church leaders as the automatic source of authority,” he says.

That holds true even for even the oldest Catholics: “They’re going by their own consciences as individuals, or saying that there should be some kind of dialogue between church leaders and the laity.”

The study found that the Millenials are the least likely to look to the church on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and sex outside marriage.

According to the book, in 2005 the younger adults said there are fewer requirements to being a good Catholic:

“The most extreme difference between the younger and older generations was on the question of obeying church teachings on abortion. The youngest generation saw this as much less essential – 89 percent said it was okay to disobey the teachings, compared with 44 percent in the oldest generation.”

Similar but smaller differences were found regarding birth control.

The research also found that Catholics are “quite tolerant about the truth claims of other religions – tending to believe that all religions have at least some truth. Their commitment no longer includes claims of being the one, true church.”

D’Antonio has also co-authored a new book, Voices of the Faithful, that explores the history and religious beliefs of a social movement in the church that evolved in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-up in Boston in 2002.

“These Catholics are angry at the scandal, but they’re loyal,” D’Antonio says.

“They’re the ones who care most about the church. That’s why they raise their voices.”

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