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The Moral Challenge We Face


The Other Side of the Coin
Catholic Direction
A Moral Witness

A recent study commissioned by the Knights of Columbus shows that the moral state of the nation may be a bit more complicated—and better—than the flat-out moral decline many decry.

This opinion poll, commissioned by the Knights and conducted by the Maris Institute for Public Opinion (at Marist College), is another in a series of occasional polls the Knights sponsor. The poll, "American Millennials: Generations Apart," conducted late in 2009 and released this past February, focused on young Catholics, aged 18-29. These are the millennials about whom we hear so much.

On the bright side, 85 percent of Catholic millennials say they believe in God (presumably, the rest are still considering the options). The top priority for millennial Catholics is getting married and having a family (33 percent) and being spiritual or close to God (18 percent count this as their number one priority).

Commitment to marriage is undervalued, say 82 percent of millennial Catholics. Sixty-three percent say concern for the less fortunate is undervalued. Eighty percent of all millennials see religion as "somewhat important." The number is higher among Catholic millennials, not surprisingly, at 98 percent.

Another promising sign: More than half of all millennials think that religious values should influence business decisions; an even greater number—75 percent—of practicing Catholic millennials agree.

Finally, two hot-button issues: 66 percent of Catholic millennials say abortion is morally wrong, while 63 percent say the same of euthanasia. Those numbers may be a bit higher and welcome than one might expect.


The Other Side of the Coin

Yet the 2010 survey indicates changes that many will find disturbing. For example, two thirds of Catholic millennials see themselves as more "spiritual" than "religious." One could say that these millennials are keeping a bit of distance between themselves and the institution of Catholicism.

Sixty-one percent of all millennials say they think practicing more than one religion is O.K.; 43 percent of Catholic millennials agree.

Eighty-two percent of millennial Catholics see morals as relative, as compared to 63 percent of all American Catholics.

Perhaps there is some solace in hearing that two in three millennial Catholics want to learn more about their faith.

Yet, on the whole, 67 percent of all Americans feel that moral values are "headed down the wrong path." The older you are, the poll says, the more likely you are to feel that way, but more than half of all Americans see a decline in moral values. So, at least, in spite of actual moral decline, the perception of moral decline is widespread.

Even if all morals aren't disappearing, decline in moral sense among younger practicing Catholics seems to be something new. Could it be, at least in part, that the Church, champion of morality, has lost credibility?

In many ways, young eyes in recent years have seen a lot of bad news from the people who are supposed to be heralds of Good News. Imagine growing up in a Church that has been skewered by public opinion since the sex-abuse crisis became public, and then more public, over the last 25 years! And its repercussions don't seem to be over yet.

(Though a small minority, up to four percent, of priests are culpable, it seems that most of the hierarchy have scandalously mismanaged them.)

Birth control is likely not even on the radar of most young Catholics: The official Catholic teaching prohibiting any birth control other than Natural Family Planning is rejected by three fourths of lay Catholics, says a poll conducted by Gallup a few years ago.

At the same time, younger Catholics have grown up in a time of increasing, welcome recognition of the rights of women. Right or wrong, many see the Church's prohibition against ordination for women as one more strike against the Church's moral credibility. But young Catholics are, by majority, in step with the Church on euthanasia and cloning.

Then there's global solidarity. While previous generations might find problems out-of-range beyond their community—and beyond their shores, having experienced World War II, the Korean or Vietnam wars—today's travel- and communications-connected young adults are plugged in to people everywhere.

At best, that exposure heightens the universality ("catholic-ness") of their experience. On the other hand, though, it can lead to relativism, a notion of "live and let live" that we hear from so many today. The Marist poll found that millennials feel that "tolerance for people who are different" is not valued enough in our society. That's good news—if one retains a sense of Catholic identity.

So, you see, it's a mixed bag. We're probably not going to "hell in a handbasket," as some would say. But we're not exactly on the straight and narrow path, either.

The first step in moving forward is for the Church to straighten out its own act. We in the Church, all of us, need to be credibly attached to the moral values we espouse.

That is the strongest invitation to the moral life.—J.F.

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