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Survey: Catholics Adapt to Culture at Cost of Committed Faith

A new Barna Group survey examined the largest religious group in the United States. With over 69 million adherents, the Catholic Church was found to be as mainstream as any people group in the nation, but much less committed to practicing their faith.

According to the survey released Monday, 68 percent of Catholics said their religious faith is very important in their life, which was also true among non-Catholic adults. But Catholics were only half as likely as others to say their faith is the highest priority in life. A majority identified family as their priority.

Only 44 percent of Catholics claimed to be "absolutely committed" to the Christian faith compared to 54 percent of the American adult population. Moreover, Catholics were less likely than average to look forward to discussing their religious views with other people, to attending church services, and to reading the Bible. However, Catholics were 16 percent more likely than average to attend a church service and 8 percent more likely to have prayed to God during the prior week.

The gap between Catholics and other Americans was also apparent in other faith-oriented behaviors. The study found that 67 percent of Catholics were less likely than the average to attend a Sunday school class; 20 percent were less likely to share their faith in Christ with someone who had different beliefs; 24 percent were less likely to say their religious faith has greatly transformed their life; and 36 percent were less likely to have an "active faith" (reading the Bible, praying and attending a church service).

Catholics differ substantially in spiritual beliefs from the typical views of Americans. They were significantly less likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; half as likely to maintain that they have a responsibility to share their faith with others; more likely than average to say that Satan is not real, to believe that eternal salvation is earned, and to contend that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth.

The study also found the moral convictions of Catholics differ from that of non-Catholic Americans. Catholics were twice as likely to view pornographic content on the Internet and more likely to use profanity, to gamble, and to buy lottery tickets. But they were more likely to not say mean things about people behind their back and were more likely to recycle.

When it came to behaviors outside of faith and morals, Catholics were found to be strikingly similar to people aligned with other faith groups. Catholics were just as likely or similarly likely to adopt the terms "independent thinker," "seen as a leader," "loyal and reliable," "stressed out," and "clear about the meaning and purpose of my life."

The only difference was adopting the term "evangelical Christian." Catholics were 39 percent less likely to accept that label.

Although one out of every four Catholics is born again (based on their beliefs), making Catholics the second largest denominational grouping of born again Christians in the nation behind Baptists, they are 37 percent less likely to be born again than are adults not associated with the Catholic faith.

"The history of American Catholics is that of a pool of immigrants who have successfully blended into the native culture. They have done well at adapting to their surroundings and emerging to become a backbone of the community and the national economy," said George Barna, who directed the study.

Catholics have become a slightly more affluent group and the current Catholic population has a disproportionately low number of blacks, who make up one out of every seven Americans but only one out of every 25 Catholics, and high number of Hispanics, according to the Barna Group.

The study noted that while immigrant groups have a tendency to work hard to adapt to their new culture, the group often loses its religious distinctive, as in the case of American Catholics over the past century.

"Today, they are a large and vibrant group, but one that is faith-aware rather than faith-driven," the report stated.

American Catholics are more similar to non-Christians than Protestants are to the non-believers, the survey showed.

"[T]he cost of that struggle to achieve acceptance and legitimacy is that Catholics have largely lost touch with much of their substantive spiritual heritage," Barna stated. "They retain an appreciation for tradition and consistency, but have much less of a commitment to knowing and practicing the commands of Christ. For instance, the data show that some of their long-held distinctives, such as being champions of social justice, are no longer a defining facet of their community.

"The trail of Catholicism in America is a clear example of culture influencing faith more often than faith influencing culture."

Results from the study are based on telephone surveys with 4,014 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted between August 2006 and January 2007. Among those interviewed, 876 were self-identified Catholics.

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