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Philippa Martyr: What do young Catholics actually believe?

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The weeklies are rock solid on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (97 per cent belief), religious miracles (94 per cent), and the intercession of the saints (96 per cent).
The weeklies are rock solid on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (97 per cent belief), religious miracles (94 per cent), and the intercession of the saints (96 per cent).

Can we assume that just because someone turns up at Mass, they believe what the church teaches?

You would think so, but it’s not always the case. I’m sure we’ve all been to that parish barbeque.

The research I’ve done with University of Notre Dame academic Stephen Bullivant has given us a good sense of what young Catholics under 40 actually believe.

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We have a sample of around 700 of them, the biggest subset of which—85 per cent—go to Mass weekly, so I’m going to call them “weeklies”.

The other group is smaller, and their pattern of Mass attendance is more irregular, so I’m going to call them “irregulars.”

It turns out that this is an important distinction to make in this group, because there are some big differences in what the two groups believe.

Let’s start with belief in God, which is a pretty good reason for getting out of bed on a Sunday morning (or indeed any morning).

The weeklies are pretty sure about his existence (83 per cent)—in fact, they’re twice as sure as the irregulars (44 per cent).

It’s also no surprise to see that just four per cent of the irregulars said that the church is the most important part of their lives, versus 60 per cent of the weeklies.

We asked our sample a question about how they personally saw the origins of their faith. Was it a matter of their ancestry, their culture, or a matter of genuinely believing something? Or a mix of all these?

Nearly two-thirds of the weeklies opted for genuine belief, but less than a quarter of irregulars did.

The irregulars were much more likely to say that for them, being Catholic was more a matter of culture or ancestry—like football team loyalty.

Let’s look at specific Catholic beliefs, starting with what happens when you die. The weeklies are very sure about life after death—97 per cent of them believe in it, versus 70 per cent of the irregulars.

But there’s a big difference in opinion about what’s on the other side.

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” That old expression is what we see in these survey results.

Young Catholic adults from across Sydney enjoyed Mass, a meal and the launch of the exciting new mission pathway which will see Sydney Catholic Youth increasing its collaboration with other agencies. Photos: Alphonsus Fok

There’s agreement about the existence of heaven—99 per cent of weeklies and 82 per cent of irregulars—but much less agreement about purgatory and hell.

The existence of hell is always a good topic for parish barbeque small talk, and this is why: 95 per cent of weeklies believe it exists, while just 50 per cent of irregulars do.

That’s going to lead to an interesting exchange of views over the coleslaw.

I don’t want to be too hard on the irregulars. It’s also worth noting that about a third of them gave “maybe” response to the existence of purgatory and hell.

The weeklies are rock solid on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (97 per cent belief), religious miracles (94 per cent), and the intercession of the saints (96 per cent).

The irregulars, not so much: just 54 per cent believe in the real presence, 55 per cent in religious miracles, and 56 per cent in the saints’ intercession. A third were keeping their options open with “maybe” on all three.

We threw in a question about reincarnation, which I might need to remind you is not a Catholic teaching.

The weeklies were quite clear—92 per cent said they didn’t believe in it, versus 58 per cent of irregulars, with again 33 per cent saying “maybe.”

There was a big difference in belief in the Church’s teaching about marriage and sex. Of course there was.

This is a culture that’s just gone through a sexual revolution and decades of soft-pedalling Catholic teaching in this area.

The weeklies were very clear in their beliefs. Abortion is a sin (94 per cent), as is sex outside marriage (91 per cent), homosexual activity (90 per cent), remarriage without an annulment (86 per cent) and use of contraception (83 per cent).

The irregulars were almost the opposite on every issue: abortion (48 per cent), sex outside marriage (39 per cent), homosexual activity (33 per cent), remarriage (32 per cent), and contraception (19 per cent).

So it turns out that if you ask a young Catholic who goes to Mass every week, you’ll probably get an answer that lines up with church teaching on key issues.

But if you ask a young Catholic who doesn’t go every week, you may get a very different answer.

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