New survey confirms low belief and practice levels of young Catholics

New survey confirms low belief and practice levels of young Catholics

Michael Gilchrist

Surveys over the past 30 years have shown a steady decline in the belief and practice levels of young Catholics (as with other mainline Christians).

The summary results of a three year study completed in 2005, titled "The Spirit of Generation Y", have recently become available. Generation Y represents those aged 13-29.

These results indicate a low level of belief and practice among Generation Y Catholics similar to earlier surveys.

The research team consisted of Dr Michael Mason CSsR and Associate Professor Ruth Webber of Australian Catholic University, Dr Andrew Singleton of Monash University and Dr Phillip Hughes of the Christian Research Association.

The project aimed to determine the varieties of spirituality among Australian young people. Of most interest to readers of this journal are the results for young Catholics.

Major categories

The survey found three major categories of spirituality: Christian Traditional, Eclectic and Humanist.

Eclectic represented a "collage of themes from disparate sources", such as neo-paganism, goddess worship, astrology, various superstitions, or elements of Eastern or esoteric religious practices. Humanist is described as "a worldview which affirms human experience and human reason, rather than adopting religious traditions of 'spiritual' paths."

The distribution of these types within Generation Y was Christian Traditional 43 percent, Eclectic 17 percent, Humanist 31 percent and Other 9 percent.

The stated religious affiliations of Generation Y respondents were Catholic 17.9 percent, Anglican 7.8 percent, Orthodox 3.4 percent and Uniting Church 2.2 percent. Those with no religious identification came to 52.2 percent.

These 2005 figures differed significantly from those in the Australian Census of 2001 with Catholics 8-9 percent lower than the Census indicated for this age group in 2001. In fact, 29 percent of Generation Y former Catholics said in the survey that they now had no denominational identification.

Among those who identified as Catholics, 75 percent said they believed in God as against 57 percent for Anglicans. Thirty-three percent of Catholics said they felt close or very close to God as against 27 percent of Anglicans. However, only 10 percent of Catholics agreed that "only one religion is true", as against 34 percent of Other Christians in the survey. The statement of faith, "Jesus was God and rose" was accepted by 55 percent of Catholics but 71 percent of Other Christians.

In fact, on nearly all measures of belief and practice, Catholics scored significantly lower than Other Christians, if slightly more than Anglicans.

Compared with their parents' generation, however, those aged 45-59 years, Generation Y Catholics were very similar on most items of belief and practice, with the following somewhat contradictory exceptions: they were:

* more likely to affirm that God relates to us as a person;

* less likely to find it "okay to pick and choose one's beliefs"; but

* more likely to agree that "morals are relative"; and

* less likely to claim that faith was important or very important in shaping their lives.

The Generation Y survey classified those who identified with a Christian denomination according to Spirituality Type: Committed numbered 8 percent; Active, 7 percent; Marginal, 10 percent; Nominal, 18 percent.

Of all who identified as Catholics, 15 percent were Committed, 14 percent Active, 23 percent Marginal, 30 percent Nominal and 17 percent Eclectic. (Catholics were significantly more likely than Anglicans and Other Christians to be Eclectic.)

"Committed" was defined as being those who identify with a Christian denomination, believe definitely in God and that Jesus was God and rose from the dead; attend religious services weekly or more often; pray weekly or more often; and have a low level of Eclecticism.

The other categories range downwards from this to Nominal, which has little or no religious involvement but stops short of outright rejection.

Contrary to past research findings, it was found that there were no significant differences between males and females in the survey regarding belief and practice. In fact, most recent research has shown that young women are no more religious than men on most measures. Since mothers have long been known to have great influence in the religious socialisation of children, and this remained true in the present study, the researchers concluded that "it is hard to overestimate the importance of this finding and its likely consequences".

Practice level

Taking the "Committed" level to mean practising, the 15 percent figure might seem much better than some of the more recent estimates such as that of Professor Denis McLaughlin, which found 97 percent of Catholic school leavers ceased the practice of their faith.

However, the actual Census figure for Catholics is 27.3 percent, not the 17.9 percent in this survey, hence the committed level based on the real total would be closer to 10 percent. Also, since Generation Y covers the 13-29 age range, a significant number of these would be still at school and living at home. Their practice levels, while still low, would tend to inflate the overall figure.

The results of the 2001 National Church Life Survey and Mass count showed that just over five percent of Catholics in their 20s attended Mass regularly (two or three times a month).

The Generation Y survey therefore appears to more or less confirm earlier findings - hardly cause for celebration among the Church's educators.

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