October 25th, 2011
10:10 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) - A new survey paints a picture of a less-strict American Catholic community, with 86% of respondents stating they believe a Catholic "can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church."
Among the most devout, older Catholics, Mass attendance has fallen from 64% in 1999 to just over 50% in 2011, according to a new survey of American Catholics.
And as those older Catholics die, they are replaced by a millennial generation that questions some of the church's social beliefs and attend church less often than older worshipers.
"Catholics in the past 25 years have become more autonomous when making decisions about important moral issues; less reliant on official teaching in reaching those decisions; and less deferential to the authority of the Vatican and individual bishops," stated the report's introduction.
"Catholics in America: Persistence and change in the Catholic landscape," was published Monday by the National Catholic Reporter and is the fifth installment in a survey that has been conducted every six years.
Even as attendance is down, the survey discovered that "foundational theological beliefs and the sacraments are at the heart of what American Catholics see as core to their Catholic identity."
For example, 73% and 64% of respondents respectively said it was very important that Catholics believe in "Jesus' resurrection from the dead" and that Mary was the mother of God.
According to Professor William D'Antonio of Catholic University, the man who led the study, these numbers have remained consistent.
At the same time, 66% of American Catholics said the Vatican's teaching authority is either somewhat or not important, a number D'Antonio said is higher than in the past.
The results of the survey were published on the National Catholic Reporter website in 13 essays ranging from, "Different generations in the church," to "The struggles of young Hispanic Catholics." USA Today was the first to report on this survey.
D'Antonio said the numbers point to a growing number of what he called "cafeteria Catholics" - churchgoers who tend to only follow aspects of the Catholic church with which they agree, but he disagreed that the numbers show the Catholic Church changing from religion to culture in America.
"Everyone is a cafeteria Catholic - so what," said D'Antonio. "I would consider a cultural Catholic as someone who never goes to Mass, but they still identity with the religion. That isn't the majority."
Around 50% of the 1,442 Catholics surveyed went to church at least once a month. D'Antonio, who is also a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Catholic University, said this is the church's new norm.
One reason for this dip in attendance may be a diversion in social beliefs, said the study. Even though the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have made it a point to be clear on the church's opposition to abortion, less than half ofthe Catholics surveyed - 40% - said the church's opinion was very important.
Those numbers go down on the issue of same-sex marriage, where 35% said the church's opinion was very important, to 29% on the death penalty issue.
"What more and more Catholics are saying is that my lived experiences are different than what the church is saying," said D'Antonio.
A major factor in this shift is the growing youth and diversity in the Catholic church, said the survey. Today, 45% of millennial Catholics are Hispanic.
"Many Catholic Hispanic millennials and their friends and relatives are poor," said the study. "Poverty is not an abstract concept - it is a fact of their lives and it is reflected in the way Hispanics conceive of themselves as Catholics, in what they expect of the church in its ministry and use of its influence for public policy."
Though young Hispanic Catholics are more observant in terms of marriage and abortion when compared to their non-Hispanic counterparts, they put more of an emphasis - 70% - on helping the poor than the 56% of non-Hispanic worshipers who think helping the poor is important.
But even then, "on matters like going to Mass every Sunday or using contraceptive birth control methods, large majorities of both groups see these moral issues as personal matters subject to their right to freedom of conscience," said the study.
A unique challenge comes with this growing diversity, said D'Antonio. He worries that the church is not ready to address the different needs that Hispanics bring to the pews.
"What concerns me is that the church structure is much weaker than when I was young," D'Antonio said. "We do not have a parish structure that is able bring these people fully into the church. It is a different church from the 1930s to 60s."
The survey was conducted online from April 25 to May 2 in both English and Spanish. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
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