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Symposium Examines New Survey on Catholics

“Hispanic Catholicism,” said Asst. Prof. Hosffman Ospino (STM), has an enormous potential to renew the life of the Catholic Church.” (Photo by Frank Curran)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 17, 2011

Despite faltering confidence in their bishops, American Catholics still hold true to the core beliefs of their faith — the Resurrection, the call to help the poor, and the sacraments — according to a 2011 survey that was the topic of a recent daylong Church in the 21st Century Center symposium.

At the Nov. 2 event, Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill and School of Theology and Ministry Assistant Professor Hosffman Ospino provided responses to the survey results, which were presented by the research team: William V. D’Antonio, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America; Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University; and Michele Dillon, professor and chair of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

“The information and analysis of this national survey provide an important window into the attitudes and practices of the different generations of American Catholics and how the Catholic population is both remaining the same and continually changing. It was a significant event for the American Church and Boston College was proud to host it,” said Special Assistant to the President Robert Newton, C21 interim director.

The survey of American Catholics, the fifth in a series conducted every six years since 1987, touched on a wide range of issues, from Mass attendance, church teachings, spiritual beliefs and practices to the impact of the sexual abuse crisis, attitudes about parish leadership and changing demographics in the American Catholic Church. In general, the survey reveals that American Catholicism is a “rich blend of theological substance, doctrinal autonomy and institutional loyalty.”

According to the researchers, large majorities of Catholics surveyed say that a person can be a good Catholic without going to church every week (78 percent), and without obeying the church’s hierarchy’s teachings on birth control (78 percent) or on divorce and remarriage (69 percent). In fact, one in three Catholics born between 1941 and 1993 believe that missing Mass is not a mortal sin.

Researchers say one reason why Catholics continue to remain loyal to Catholicism while skeptical of some of its teachings and practices is they find many meaningful aspects to their faith — such as the Mass and the grace of the sacraments (84 and 80 percent, respectively). Three quarters of those surveyed said being Catholic is a very important part of who they are, and more than half said they would never leave the Church.

The fallout from the clergy sexual abuse crisis was evident in the survey results: More than 80 percent said the issue hurt the credibility of church leaders who speak on out social or political issues, and 77 percent said it has affected the ability of priests to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of their parishioners.

Differences among Catholics’ attitudes and practices were evident primarily along generational lines and ethnicity. “Hispanic Catholics, as a whole, are more devout and more differential to church authority, than non-Hispanic Catholics,” said Dillon.

Hispanic Catholics make up an increasingly larger portion of American Catholics, constituting 45 percent of Millennial Catholics (born between 1987 and 1993).

“Hispanic Catholicism has an enormous potential to renew the life of the Church,” Ospino said. “We need to invest in Hispanic Catholic youth and young adults, focusing on catechesis so Hispanic Catholics can know more about their religion and on leadership development. Right now Latinos/Latinas are on the margins. We need to increase their involvement in the priesthood and lay ministry.”

For more about the survey, visit the Catholics in America website.