Pew: Only 60% of Catholics Believe in a Personal God Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 25 June 2008 16:44
I spent yesterday and today crunching the numbers from Part II of the Pew Forum US Religious Landscape Survey and the results have been illuminating, especially in light of our work on our new seminar Making Disciples.

There is a lot that could be said but for right now, I'll begin by commenting on the most obvious and surprising results for Catholics.

I'll start with a real stunner.

Only 60% of self-described US adult Catholics can clearly affirm that they believe in a personal God with whom it is possible to have a relationship.

Nearly 30% of Catholics believe in an “impersonal force” rather than a personal God.

(The obvious follow-up question: "what percentage of this 40% who don't believe in a personal God are practicing Catholics?" doesn’t seem to have been asked.)

Sherry's response:

If a large minority of Catholics don’t believe in the possibility of a relationship with a personal God, I suspect that it is largely because they are not seeing this sort of relationship regularly modeled, talked about, and valued by their families, friends, and parishes.

This is one of the consequences of our “don’t ask, don’t tell” Catholic culture meshing with our “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” secular culture, creating a perfect “spiral of silence” not just about intentional discipleship but even about the mere possibility of relationship with a personal God.

No wonder talk of intentional discipleship seems so foreign and excessive to many Catholics across the spectrum.

In light of this it is fascinating to note that, according to the Pew study, 82% of Catholic believe in heaven. But obviously, many can not be thinking of heaven as a fruit of and the enjoyment of a relationship of union with God. Is it more like the Simpson's version of Catholic heaven complete with red wine and a cast of millions making like Riverdance? You know, Irish Catholic heaven as envisioned by Hollywood.

This begins to make sense of what we've noticed doing thousands of personal interviews: that nearly all Catholics believe everyone will go to heaven but many are extremely unclear as to what Jesus has to do with it. As Peter Kreeft has noted numerous times, he asked the students in every class he taught at Boston College (most were cradle Catholics) why they should go to heaven if they died tonight, and nearly every one over the years said "because I'm a good person." Hardly any student mentioned Jesus Christ.

But if your basic assumption is that you can't have a relationship with God, it makes perfect sense to envision enjoying heaven independent of relationship with God. - and equally perfect sense that the criteria for doing so becomes my essential goodness. If you don’t think of God as personal, what does relationship with God have to do with heaven or anything else? So much for the beatific vision.

Related to and flowing from this: only 22% of US Catholics turn to Church teaching to inform their moral decision-making, relying much more heavily (57%) upon “practical experience/common sense” which, of course, largely means relying upon what they see others do and say and value around them, i.e, our popular culture.

I'm sure that this isn't a surprise. But for a Church that rejoices in and identifies so strongly with a rich and sophisticated teaching Tradition, 22% seems really low. It is 30 points below the 52% of evangelicals who consult religious teaching when making their own moral decisions although they do not possess such a body of wisdom.

The result: culture trumps the Tradition for the vast majority of US Catholics. 

Not a surprise either, but related. 57% of Catholics never read the Scriptures outside the liturgy – and only 42% attend the liturgy every week. As opposed to the 60% of evangelicals who read Scripture every week).

The overall result: Catholics, as whole, are much less likely to have a solid basis for questioning and judging the norms of our popular culture and going against them when necessary. But the Apostolic Tradition will only becoming really compelling when one has a living relationship with the Source of the Tradition. And a large percentage of Catholics don’t even know that relationship is possible.

Of course, none of these numbers account for the huge number of baptized Catholics who now regard themselves as evangelical and would have answered the survey accordingly.

Here's something I didn't expect:

The biggest attendance generation gap for all US religious groups studied is among Catholics. 62% of those 65 and older attend Mass at least once a week while only 34% of Catholics under 30 do so, a 28 point difference. Only 36% of  Catholics in their 30’s and 40’s attend Mass each week, a 26 point difference.

The Pew study makes it clear:

This is a situation unique to Catholics and which we cannot project as a whole on the millennial/Gen X generations. (For instance, 54% of under 30 evangelicals and 57% of 30 and 40 something evangelicals attend church every week as opposed to 65% of those 65 and above. 11 and 8 point differences.)

And the final irony which makes perfect sense in light of all the above:
In the US, Catholics are actually less likely to talk about their faith or view of God with someone else than is an atheist. (62% of Catholics say they never share their faith or talk about God with others, while only 61% of atheists say that.)
You have heard it here before.
God has no grandchildren.  It's time to ask what men and women's journey with God has actually been like.  It's time to really listen.  And it's time to tell the Story.
Because huge numbers of Catholics have never, never heard it.
There are some really striking and hopeful stats regarding atheists, agnostics and those who claim no religious affiliation of any kind.  But that is for another post.