With the youth synod only a few months away, a major new survey of young Catholics in Britain has some startling findings. On the plus side, Complex Catholicism: The Lives and Faith of Young Catholics in England and Wales Today shows a strong increase in regular Mass attendance (at least monthly) from 25 per cent of all respondents in 2009 to 36 per cent in 2017. Irregular Mass attendance (less than monthly) has increased from 59 per cent in 2009 to 75 per cent today.
But the survey also includes some unsettling findings about what young Catholics actually believe: well over half do not hold traditional Catholic beliefs on God, many believe that Jesus was only human and not the Son of God, and a large number are willing to ignore the Church’s moral teachings.
The study was conducted by Catholic research group Camino House and Cymfed, the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation, in September and October last year. A total of 1,005 Catholics in England and Wales, aged 15-25, were surveyed online. Just over half were 15-19, and 48 per cent were 20-25; 68 per cent were female and 32 per cent male. Two-thirds of the respondents self-identified as Catholic; the remaining third did not, but came from a Catholic family or had attended a Catholic school. Unsurprisingly, many of these “non-identifiers” still held some Catholic beliefs and attitudes, but were less likely to hold strongly to the Church’s teachings.
The finding that should cause most concern to the Church is that half of the respondents who self-identify as Catholics don’t believe in a personal God. Only 38 per cent hold to the Church’s teaching that God created the world and is involved in what happens to the world now. A further 12 per cent believe He created the world but is not involved in the world today.
One in five said they believed in a higher spiritual power but not a personal god, one in four said they weren’t sure whether they believed in God or a higher spiritual power – and five per cent of self-identifying Catholics said they didn’t believe in God or any higher spiritual power.
Of the respondents who had a Catholic background but did not identify as Catholics today, only nine per cent held to orthodox Catholic teaching on God.
Oddly, a higher proportion of self-identifying young Catholics, 59 per cent, said they believed Jesus is or was the Son of God – but 38 per cent said he was only human. Most of these said he was a very wise or very holy person, but 9 per cent of young Catholics said he was just an ordinary person, 1 per cent said he was a “conman” and 3 per cent said he didn’t exist. Of the non-identifiers, only 22 per cent said Jesus was the Son of God, 68 per cent said he was only human and 10 per cent said he didn’t exist.
The respondents were asked a number of questions about how important various things were to someone being Catholic. Again, the figures for self-identifying Catholics should cause concern to the Church. These are the percentages who said the following were very important or important for being a Catholic: believing in God, 79 per cent; being baptised, 75 per cent; believing in Catholic ideas (eg Mary, the Pope, saints), 68 per cent; knowing Jesus as Saviour, 67 per cent; going to Mass, 47 per cent; going to Confession, 42 per cent; saying they are Catholic, 42 per cent; and following Catholic guidelines about their personal lives (eg about abortion, sex before marriage, praying and fasting), just 37 per cent. But 89 per cent said that being a good person was very important or important for being a Catholic – that’s 10 per cent more than those who thought believing in God to be important.
For this group, then, the teachings of the Church, both spiritual and moral, are less important than simply being a good person.
These findings are in sharp contrast to the 2,000 young Catholics who in March took part in a Facebook group putting forward their beliefs to a small group who were writing a pre-synod report on the concerns of young Catholics. Many in the Facebook group were furious that their views on orthodox teaching and reverent liturgy, including promoting the Extraordinary Form, were not reflected in the final document.
Which group is more representative of young Catholics today?
The Cymfed/Camino House survey found its respondents through a trusted market research polling agency, while the Facebook group were by definition self-selecting, young people who felt strongly enough about Catholic teachings and practices to spend time on social media putting forward their beliefs.
Both groups are undoubtedly part of the Church’s youth. Another survey, carried out for the bishops of England and Wales last November, well in advance of this October’s synod on “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, found two very distinct groups of young Catholics: one that “asks for clarity” and another that seeks “authenticity”.
According to that report the clarity-seekers are “a small but vocal group who want to draw the Church back into an era which they have been told was far better than it is today”. The second group, meanwhile, “adhere to the predominant narratives in society, wanting the Church to follow suit”. They are the much larger group – and it is clearly their voice that is being heard in this new survey.