Pew survey outlines challenges, opportunities for Pope Francis

There are enough interesting numbers in the just-published survey on U.S. Catholics by the Pew Research Center to keep Vatican-watchers busy for days. Here are my thoughts on a few of the highlights:

-- The Pew summary underlines that while U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly favor a married mother and father as the ideal situation for raising children, a strong majority also rates as “acceptable” other kinds of families, including cohabitating parents, single parents or divorced parents. A smaller majority said it was acceptable for children to be raised by gay or lesbian couples, though the Catholic respondents were evenly split on church recognition of gay marriage.

Some would see this as an implicit challenge to church authorities and their defense of the traditional family. But these respondents were not simply theorizing; they were speaking largely from experience. One-fourth of the Catholics surveyed said they have gone through a divorce, and more than 40 percent have, at some point in their lives, lived with a romantic partner outside marriage. The reality of family configuration is changing even inside the Catholic Church, something that was recognized at last year’s session of the Synod of Bishops, where many bishops said pastors should reach out to people in “irregular” situations and build on the good in their relationships.

-- I’ve seen some headlines today that focus on one finding of the survey: that 77 percent of people raised Catholic but no longer Catholic say they don’t envision returning to the church. That is seen by some as a type of wall facing the perceived “Francis effect” among fallen-away Catholics.

I would point out two things. First, the survey found a similar majority (70 percent) among current Catholics who say they’ll never leave the church. But it also found that among adults raised Catholic, 52 percent have left the church at some point in their lives, and many have returned. Catholics move in and out of the church more than people recognize, and perhaps more than Catholics themselves expect.

In addition, the survey found that among “cultural Catholics” – those who don’t self-identify as Catholics today but who have some ties to the church – 43 percent could see themselves returning to the church. This group (cultural Catholics) was large, 9 percent of the total respondents, and it certainly represents a target audience for Pope Francis.

-- According to the survey results, the overall number of Catholics as a percentage of U.S. population is down, from nearly 24 percent in 2007 to 20 percent today. More worrisome for church authorities is that the number dips to 15 percent among “millennials,” those born between 1981-1996. Among that same millennial group, 35 percent say they have no religious affiliation.

Those are challenging statistics for the Catholic Church, I think. Although young people have a very favorable impression of Pope Francis, that may not matter when it comes to belonging to the church. It’s much easier to bring someone back to the church who is already in touch with Catholic life, than to evangelize young people for whom life in the church is completely foreign.

-- Although the Catholic share of the U.S. population may be diminishing, the Pew survey found that 45 percent of all respondents said they were connected to Catholicism in some way – as members of the church, as fallen-away Catholics, through marriage or through a cultural connection. That’s an amazingly high number, and it helps explain, I think, why the actions and words of Pope Francis resonate so deeply in this country these days.

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