Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Do Catholics Really Believe?

Many years ago, I asked myself several questions that, in my naivete, I had since assumed that all serious Christians have to ask themselves upon attaining maturity. Somewhere I must have made a false assumption, for every time that I delve into survey results on what other Catholics believe, I cannot help but be amazed and distressed.

The questions that I had were pretty basic, or so I thought. Why am I Catholic? Why am I not Lutheran or Methodist or some other Christian denomination? Why aren’t I a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu, or a Buddhist? Does it make a difference? If I tell people that I am a Catholic, what am I saying about myself? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I am Catholic because I believe the claims of the Catholic Church, that it does make a huge difference, and that when I tell people I am Catholic, I am telling them that I believe what the Catholic Church teaches.

Apparently, most Catholics never deal with these questions. I hope that it’s a larger problem out in the broader world than it is here in the German-Catholic ghetto at the extreme north of the Cincinnati Archdiocese. I say that based solely upon a single anecdote. I knew a woman who moved into the area and converted to Catholicism. She was a lovely lady. A few years after her conversion, she changed jobs and moved to a nearby city—not a big city, mind you, one with a population of about 20,000. A year or two after her move, I ran into her at a pilgrimage. She shared that she missed the faith of the people from our area. People in the city are as likely as not to say, “I’m Catholic, but . . . .” That little three letter conjunction, which is intended to signal high-minded independent thought, so much more instead.

What prompted all of this is an examination of survey results. The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 results have been in the news recently, mostly for noting an increase in those claiming no religion whatsoever. About a year ago, in February 2008, it was the results of the Pew Forum U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, which made waves in Catholic media for noting that 32% of U.S. residents who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. God only knows how many more still call themselves Catholic, although they functionally ceased being Catholic long ago. Finally, there was the Survey of Religion and Politics conducted by the University of Akron dealing with voting patterns in the presidential election. All three are available on-line.

If the Catholic Church is known for anything in the United States, it would be for it’s staunch opposition to abortion. And yet, among individual Catholics, 48% think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and only 45% think that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. The majority of Catholics, it would appear, are pro-choice, even though the Church calls abortion an intrinsic evil.

What about God? 93% of Catholics are absolutely or fairly certain that God exists, but only 60% believe in a personal God (in the Akron study the figure is a mere 41.9%!). That means that 40% of Catholics either don’t believe in God or believe that God is an impersonal force. It’s not a question covered by the survey, but I can’t help but wonder how those 40% view the divinity of Jesus, whom Catholics profess in the Creed to be “the only Son of God eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”

There are some inconsistencies in the numbers. Only 70% of Catholics believe in life after death, but 82% believe in heaven. The disparity must come from those who believe the souls in heaven are dead.

Not surprising is the statistic that most Catholics rarely read their Bible. A third of Catholics never read their Bible. Another third read scripture either seldom or several times a year.

The University of Akron study divided Catholics into three categories: Traditionalist, Centrist, and Modernist. When I first read those divisions, I assumed that I would fall within the Centrist division. I am certainly not a Modernist, and I don’t reject the Second Vatican Council. I was surprised to see that a higher percentage of Traditionalist Catholics voted for Obama than Centrist Catholics (surprised because of Obama’s support for abortion and the Catholic Church’s opposition). Even among Traditionalist non-Latino Catholics, weekly worship attendance (one of the precepts of the Church) and belief in a personal god are less than total at 89.4% and 72.9% respectively. The numbers for Centrist Catholics are much worse.

These kinds of numbers are a temptation to despair. Although 24% of the American population identifies itself as Catholic, many (most?) don’t really mean what they say. It’s hard to say whether all these muddled souls are willfully dissenting from Church teaching, or are just ignorant products of poor catechesis. It is clear that the Church in America has some work to do.

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