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Philippa Martyr: Do Catholic youth really want to change the church?

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Aussie youth and Bishop Richard Umbers participate in the March for Life.
Aussie youth and Bishop Richard Umbers participate in the March for Life.

I’m continuing to explore a group of around 700 young Australian Catholics who go to Mass. They are divided into two groups – the weekly massgoers, or “weeklies”, and the less regular massgoers, or “irregulars.”

So far, we’ve found a real difference between the two groups, which makes sense. After all, if you don’t believe that God is calling you to a close personal relationship with him through the sacraments, then Mass becomes a chore, so you don’t go as often.

And if you don’t really believe in what happens at Mass, then why believe a lot of other church teachings as well?

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We asked the group questions about what they believed was sinful and what wasn’t. There were big differences in their answers on issues of sex and marriage which I’ve already written about.

But there’s one area where both weeklies and irregulars agree solidly: it’s not a sin to drink alcohol. 94 per cent of weeklies and 93 per cent of irregulars agreed on this.

A slightly murkier area is divorce. Divorce is awful, and is caused by sin in a marriage, but getting a divorce is not a sin.

Both canon law (1153) and the Catechism (section 1649) recognise the role of legal separation, and in Australia a legal divorce is how we provide for everyone involved.

However, a lot of Catholics believe that getting a divorce is a sin, which is why 61 per cent of our weeklies believed this, compared to just 26 per cent of our irregulars.

We also asked about what might be called “sins of affluence.” These aren’t in the Ten Commandments, but they could be seen as injustices.

Is it sinful for you to live in a house that is much larger than your family needs? 10 per cent of the weeklies believed this, compared to 7 per cent of the irregulars.

Is it sinful to use mostly non-renewable energy sources? Only 3 per cent of the weeklies believed that, versus 11 per cent of the irregulars.

And is it sinful to spend money on yourself without also giving to the poor? 59 per cent of our weeklies think so, but only 45 per cent of the irregulars thought this was a sin.

I thought the irregulars would be more interested in social justice, rather than getting hung up on sex. But it seems that the weeklies had slightly more sensitive consciences when it comes to the just use of money and possessions.

Elizabeth Hickman from St. Clement of Rome Parish in St. Louis is among the youth from the Archdiocese of St. Louis praying during the archdiocese’s Generation Life pilgrimage in Arlington, Va., Jan. 23, 2020, the eve of the March for Life in Washington. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

Then we asked about certain church teachings and disciplines and whether they should be changed. Only one of these actually could be changed—routinely ordaining married men for the Western Catholic Church.

The difference now widened to an abyss. The weeklies were largely against changes, but the one they supported the most (16 per cent) was ordaining married men—the only change the church could make.

The other issues were: giving Holy Communion to people who were cohabiting (15 per cent), giving Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (13 per cent), changing the Church’s teaching on contraception (10 per cent), allowing ordained priests to marry (9 per cent), recognising same sex marriage (6 per cent) and ordaining women (6 per cent).

These are tiny minorities. There is almost no support for these changes among the under-40s weekly massgoers in Australia—the future of the church here.

But the irregulars were also more conservative than I thought. They were mostly keen on holy communion for cohabitees, and changing the church’s teaching on contraception (both 71 per cent).

Of course they were: 11 per cent of the irregulars are cohabiting, compared to just two per cent of the weeklies. And just one per cent of the irregulars have more than four children, compared to 12 per cent of the weeklies.

They were much less interested in any changes to the priesthood, including ordaining women.

Finally, we asked our young Catholics how much they felt affiliated to the church. Ninety-seven per cent of our weeklies said they felt “very” affiliated, but so did 71 per cent of the irregulars.

Remember: the irregulars are a small group in this study. They mostly don’t accept core Catholic teachings, but are happy to recommend sweeping changes that suit them personally. And yet they feel “very affiliated” to the church.

What happens when you privilege the minority views of young irregular massgoers who “feel” Catholic over those of a larger, faithful, strongly affiliated group of young Catholics?

Have a think about that while I do some more numbers.

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