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
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
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
Perhaps there is some solace in hearing
that two in three millennial
Catholics want to learn more about
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
(Though a small minority, up to four
percent, of priests are culpable, it seems
that most of the hierarchy have scandalously
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
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
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
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
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.