Written by Michael Fones
Tuesday, 01 July 2008 15:12
There have been some discussions about the possibility of a personal relationship with God on this blog and others recently. Part of it was re-ignited by the recent Pew Forum Report on Religion in America that indicated that 29% of Catholics believe God is simply an "impersonal force," while 60% of self-described adult Catholics can clearly affirm that they believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out in comments made on this blog, we have no idea what other factors led to their responding as they did.
Nor do we know how many of those who don't believe in a personal God actually attend Mass regularly, what education level they have, or how their response to that question correlates with other questions on the survey.
Various commenters on this blog have proposed that Catholics responded negatively to the question of a personal relationship with God because:
1) Catholics hear "personal relationship" as Protestant, especially Evangelical, language, and thus choose another response;
2) "personal relationship" implies a "me-and-Jesus" approach to faith which denies the need for community, sacraments, priests, the Church in general, and so some Catholics would not respond positively to a question about personal relationship;
3) a Catholic might read a question about the possibility of having a personal relationship with God and want to know, "just what do you mean by the phrase 'personal relationship'?"
4) Catholics hear in the words, "personal relationship" that Jesus is just another person, like Bob or Mary, yet a good Catholic realizes that He is so much more (fully Divine, too, I presume the commenter meant).
These are nice, optimistic speculations, and I hope they are true for some of the respondents on the Pew survey. But there are other statistics available that lead me to suspect that the respondents were actually telling the truth. 40% of the Catholic respondents were unable to affirm that they believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship. Interestingly enough, in February, 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) out of Georgetown University published a survey on the belief and practices of Catholics regarding the sacraments. In it, 43% of the respondents claimed that at Mass, bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present. The responses varied according to how often the respondent attended Mass. Among those who attend Mass weekly or more frequently, 91% believed in the Real Presence, while 65% of those who attend less than weekly but at least once a month believed in the Real Presence. Only 40% of those who attend a few times a year or less believed in the Real Presence.
What about other indications that might point to a personal relationship, like prayer, or reading Scripture? In the same Pew Forum survey, 42% of the Catholic respondents reported that they pray a few times a week or less. Only 58% claimed they prayed daily. 57% reported that they seldom or never read Scripture outside of religious services.
So let's look at a few numbers...
40% of adult Catholics do not believe a personal relationship with God is possible
43% of Catholics polled do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
42% of adult Catholics pray a few times a week or less
57% of adult Catholics seldom or never read Scripture outside of religious services
I'm more and more inclined to take the Pew Forum numbers at face value. One commenter noted,
How can a Catholic NOT think they have a personal relationship with Christ when one considers the incredible intimacy in receiving the Holy Eucharist inside oneself? What could possibly be more intimate than that?
She's right, of course, but perhaps it's possible that the same 42% who seldom pray and the same 43% who believe the consecrated host and wine are just symbols are the same folks who don't believe a personal relationship with God is possible. I don't know that for sure, of course, because I'm looking at two surveys, and there wasn't a correlation made in the Pew Forum between prayer and the relationship issue. But at least one could argue that at least 40% of Catholics are behaving as though they believe a personal relationship with God is impossible.