By seemingly fortunate coincidence the release of the 2008 CARA Study, “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” coincides with the first pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States.
The study, commissioned by the Department of Communications of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, surveyed 1,007 adult Catholics in the U.S. regarding their participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The survey attempts to gauge beliefs, attitudes, practices, commitment, knowledge, and level of agreement behind the participation levels of adult Catholics.
The survey considers a range of topics including sacraments in general, each of the seven sacraments, RCIA, mass attendance, vocational understanding and devotional life. The sample group can be divided into four generational demographics: Pre-Vatican II Catholics (those born prior to 1942); Vatican II Catholics (those born between 1942-1960); Post Vatican II Catholics (those born1961-1981) and Millennials (those born after 1982). The designations appear geared to the adult experience of the four groups rather than time of birth.
The following is not an exhaustive analysis of the newly released data, but a summary which points to a possible field for evangelization and catechesis.
Over 77% of adult Catholics agree that they are proud to be Catholic. The results further show strong areas of commitment: Catholics, even those who practice only somewhat or not as often, are aware of and seek to adhere to the discipline of Lent (60%). A considerable number (80%) find strength in the beliefs of the Creed regarding the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Incarnation. Satisfaction with the leadership of the Bishops has jumped 14% from 2004 to almost 75%. This satisfaction surges in approval of the overall leadership of the Church with 80% satisfied with the guidance of Pope Benedict XVI.
More than half (54%) of adult Catholics consider themselves practicing Catholics. At the same time, consistent with the past years, 23% attend Mass at least once a week. Another 10.3% attempt to attend once a week. This means that on any given Sunday over 31% of Catholics are in attendance. The open field is obvious: Between the 77% who are proud to be Catholic and the 23% who practice regularly, there is a highly fertile 54% who are accessible and within immediate reach, among which are some very close to frequent practice. This highly fertile region is the field of the New Evangelization. Catechesis and outreach to this proximate 54% can leaven the remaining 23% who identify as less than proud to be Catholic.
The results affirm the ongoing need for catechesis particularly as regards the Eucharist, attendance at Sunday Mass and Holy Days of Obligation, and the relationship between the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist.
A new bud also appears within the field of data. When asked as to the sacrament which is personally “most meaningful” to them, the Vatican II generations cite Baptism and Eucharist. This is a strong affirmation of catechesis which has taken place on the Council’s call to holiness. Within this context, the Millennials (43%) identify Marriage as the sacrament most meaningful to them. Born right in the middle of Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on the theology of the body, they are called to embody his teaching and are showing signs of it. The annuity into which John Paul deposited his teaching is already showing strong returns.
The Cara research coordinates a direction for us as Catholics. Many will point to the Cara data. Some will point pessimistically. They think the data is meant to show outcomes only. The CARA research is more like an x-ray before treatment than a post-op report after treatment. The report is not an impetus for nostalgia at the way things used to be, but for an invitation to the New Evangelization. The x-ray reveals where the effects of the secular culture have impacted our people. We now know better where the healing needs to be aimed.
Culture-change takes a long time. It is not automatic or command-based. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “…certainly, God does not count in large numbers …” Catholics do not point accusing fingers. Catholics point only to point out possibility for the seed to grow and be nourished, to point out a direction. This direction is Christ, our Hope.
The evangelical command to go forth and preach never grows tired or distant. Hope is the hallmark of the Christian. According to the French poet Charles Péguy, hope ‘surprises’ God. God is not surprised by faith. He knows he made an intelligible world and as man gazes into a telescope or glimpses through the microscope, he will sooner or later see the intelligibility and come to faith. God is not surprised by love. He knows that he made a beautiful world and man will sooner or later fall in love. But when God sees what man can do to himself in spite of faith and love, God is ‘surprised’ that we still have hope.
As Pope Benedict XVI descends to the tarmac this week he is stepping on fertile ground. He carries seeds with him of Christ, our Hope. That which seems a coincidence on earth, is, in the language of heaven, the plan of God.
Rev. J. Brian Bransfield
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis