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.


Catholic Young Adults Among Most Likely to Associate Faith with Environmental Justice

This blog is written by CARA Research Assistant Emma Mitchell. It is based on her analysis of CARA's recent national survey on Church teachings about the environment.

Catholic young adults (i.e., those ages 18 to 34) are not only more likely to promote environmental justice than older Catholic adults (i.e., those ages 35 and older), but they also are more likely to understand environmental justice to be connected to Catholicism, and to be motivated by their faith in their work for environmental justice.

Of the Catholic adults polled by CARA, young adults are significantly more likely to be familiar with the concept of environmental justice. Young adults are 12 percentage points more likely than older adults to “know well what environmental justice is about,” and 10 percentage points more likely to “have a general sense of what it is about.” Additionally, while there is no significant difference between younger and older adults and their belief in the existence of climate change, young adults are significantly more likely than older adults to believe that environmental justice is a legitimate issue that needs urgent attention (a difference between 82% and 69%), and they are more likely than older adults to have engaged in environmental-justice related activities in the past three months (a difference between 89% and 78%).

American K-12 schools adding climate change education to their curriculums over the past several decades gives one argument as to why young adults may be more likely to be familiar with environmental justice and be concerned about climate change as a pressing issue. It is also possible that young adults are more concerned with immediate environmental reform because they recognize that the effects of climate change will only become worse in the coming decades of their lives (young adults are 10 percentage points more likely than older adults to be concerned that climate change will cause them harm at some point in their lives). Along with these possible reasons, it seems that there is a religious element to young adults’ heightened concern for the environment.

When asked how much their engagement in environmental justice is motivated by their Catholic belief, young adult Catholics were 7 percentage points more likely (21% vs 14%) than older adults to say that they were “very” motivated by their Catholic beliefs to engage in environmental justice. Additionally, in an open-ended question, respondents were asked, “How would you describe the connection between your personal spirituality and your commitment to environmental justice?’ Young adults were significantly more likely (Chi-square less than 0.05) than older adults to describe personal spirituality and environmental justice to be connected. Examples of these responses from young adults include:

I believe environmental justice is real and an urgent matter to discuss both as a subject of my spirituality and my own logical sense.

I would describe it as somewhat strong connection.

I believe this is a world of God and it should be protected.

I would say they are intertwined.

The connection between environmental justice and loving your neighbor is very present in my mind.

A special relationship!

It is difficult to say why younger Catholics are more likely to associate environmental justice with their religion and spirituality than older Catholics. One possibility is that young adult Catholics understand their Catholic faith to be connected to environmental justice because they are more likely to have come across environmental justice in Catholic settings. This poll found that young adults are 31 percentage points (a difference between 84% and 52%) more likely than older adults to have come across the topic of environmental justice in Catholic settings, including at Mass, in conversations at their parish, on the internet, and in Catholic publications. Specifically, young adults are 12 percentage points more likely than older adults to have heard about Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the current climate crisis and the responsibility of Catholics and all people to care for the environment.

Related to this, the poll also reports young adults more likely to be frequent mass attenders, more likely to be involved in parish activities, and more likely to spend time in private religious activities than older adults. This is another potential reason why young adult Catholics are more likely to have come across environmental justice in Catholic contexts, and thus understand environmental justice and faith to be connected.

The results of this poll suggest a young Catholic demographic for whom both their faith and environmental justice are not only important, but linked. This raises interesting questions for what the future may bring as these young, environmentally-concerned adults take on greater leadership roles in the Church, and see their faith not just as a piece of, but as a leading force in their generation’s work for environmental justice.

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