Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Reigniting Sacramental Activity: There may be a devil in the details

One of the Catholic Church’s biggest challenges is encouraging more sacramental celebrations. Although Mass attendance rates have been stable for more than a decade, many Catholics are not at Mass on any given weekend. The percentage of Catholics indicating that they go to confession with any regularity is very low. Many Catholics are still choosing to marry—yet some decide not to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage in the Church.

At CARA we often get inquiries for any data or research on how sacramental participation could be improved. There are many correlations and sub-group differences in our research that are quite telling. One of the most powerful is also a bit surprising. I was reminded of this when reading a recent article by psychologists showing that belief in Hell is negatively correlated with crime rates cross-nationally. Guess what else Hell is related to? How often someone celebrates sacraments.

CARA's national surveys of adult Catholics have asked respondents to indicate their belief in either Heaven or Hell and they can answer: I have never doubted this; I have had doubts about this in the past, but I have none now; I have a few doubts about this from time to time; I frequently doubt this; or I do not believe this.

More Catholics believe in Heaven than Hell creating three sub-groups to study:
1) Those frequently doubting or not believing in both Heaven and Hell
2) Those believing in Heaven with no more than a few doubts that also frequently doubt or don’t believe in Hell
3) Those believing in both Heaven and Hell with no more than a few doubts
(…there are a small number of respondents who say they believe in Hell but not Heaven but they are too few in number to analyze).

Strong belief in Heaven and Hell among U.S adult Catholics varies by generation with the youngest Catholics being the least likely to say they have never doubted either. 

More than nine in ten Catholics of each generation say they currently believe in Heaven although some say they have a few doubts from time to time. Thus, overall, Millennials are just about as likely as Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics to believe in Heaven accounting for occasional doubts (93% compared to 98%).

Catholics who believe in both Heaven and Hell have higher Mass attendance rates than those who believe only in Heaven or who believe in neither. Forty-seven percent of Catholics believing in both attend Mass at least once a month compared to 30% of those believing only in Heaven, and just 12% of those who doubt or don’t believe in either Heaven or Hell.

That is the devil in the details. This of course has been a hot topic among Evangelicals and it appears to be an issue among Catholics as well. I teach a class at Georgetown called Catholicism at the Movies: A Critical Review of Portrayals of Faith on Film where I discuss our popular conceptions of God and the theory of how these may have crept into our religious beliefs altering our notions of judgment and damnation. Think about the portrayal of God in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments (the highest grossing religion film of all time, adjusted for inflation). Here God is embodied in a deep voice (described as “off-screen and to the right” by critic Paul Schrader). This is a depiction of God that showed anger and judgment. 

In more recent pop culture, God is depicted as non-judgmental and kindly in portrayals by George Burns or Morgan Freeman. This may have played at least a bit part in the imagination of young Catholics where I think some simply don’t think the God they believe in would send them to Hell for missing Mass from time to time. For others, they don't believe it is possible for God to send them to Hell because it does not even exist as an option.

If belief in Hell is related to Mass attendance than one would think there would also be a connection to how frequently one seeks out the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Twenty-eight percent of Catholics believing in both Heaven and Hell go to confession at least once a year compared to 10% of those only believing in Heaven, and 12% of those who do not believe in Heaven or Hell (...note that those saying they never go to confession are not saying that they literally have never gone to confession. Most report they celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation before their First Communion). 

For some, urgency and frequency of going to confession may be tied to their own short-term perceptions of their probability of death. It is the case that, generally, older Catholics are more likely to go to confession than younger. This may be part of the reason why still a majority of those who believe in Hell do not go to confession at least annually. Believing in Hell and recognizing one’s own mortality is a transformative event (...even if it is only Pascal’s Wager for some).

As the figure below shows, 42% of Catholics believing in both Heaven and Hell say the Sacrament of Reconciliation is “very meaningful” to them compared to only 15% of those believing only in Heaven and just 12% of those believing in neither Heaven nor Hell. Seven in ten Catholics who believe in Hell say going to confession is at least “somewhat meaningful” to them. 

Nearly half of all adult Catholics (48%) believing in Heaven and Hell say it is “very important” to them that they receive the Anointing of the Sick at some point in their lives (80% at least “somewhat’ important”). Receiving this is less important among those who doubt or do not believe in the existence of Hell and those who believe in neither Heaven nor Hell.

In my opinion, an erosion in belief in Hell among Catholics and perhaps a growing sense that God is kinder and gentler than the booming voice “off-screen and to the right” has had at least some effect on the frequency with which Catholics go to Mass or confession. It feels a bit uncomfortable saying that more “fire and brimstone” may make Catholics more active in sacramental life but the data are no deception.

Above photo courtesy of Snurb at Flickr Creative Commons.

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