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13 March 2013

The Future of the Catholic Church: Smaller, But More Conservative

By Walter Russell Mead

Younger Catholics are more “conservative” on many issues than their older counterparts, according to some data buried in a new NYT/CBS news poll. In absolute numbers the poll found that the majority of US Catholics want the next Pope to change Church teachings on hot button issues of gender and sexuality. But the really interesting news turned up when the numbers were broken down by age.

As other blogs have noticed, support for female priests is at 72 percent among Catholics aged 45-64, but at 68 percent among those 18-44. Only 11 percent of older respondents oppose birth control, but that number ticks up to 15 percent among the young. Support for eliminating the requirement for priestly celibacy falls by a whopping 15 percent from the older to the younger generation.

The complete survey results found here contain some even more impressive cross-time comparisons. The last time this poll was taken, in 1994, 34 percent of respondents said they believed that in the Eucharist the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ, while 63 percent said they thought the Eucharist was merely symbolic. Respondents have become more orthodox in the past twenty years. In the recent poll 40 percent now say they believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, while 58 percent checked off the “symbolic” box.

This poll isn’t the last word on contemporary Catholic attitudes. It had a small sample size (580 Catholics), and 30 percent of sample are nominal Catholics, reporting that they never attend mass or attend it only a few times a year. But if the generational breakdown holds in the larger population, it points to some interesting times ahead for the Catholic Church.

The reason younger respondents are more conservative than the Boomers is likely because the rise of the non-affiliated “nones” has picked off the more “liberal” Catholics among Gen Y. Boomers unhappy with the Church’s teachings often remain in the Church, but in the next generation those with more liberal instincts tend to leave the faith altogether.

In the coming decades, then, we’re likely to see a smaller, but more fervent Catholic Church. The “cultural Catholic” will increasingly become an endangered species. However, that smaller church will probably grow: Religious people have more kids, and people are drawn to communities that have strong beliefs.

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