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Traditional Catholic characteristics fading

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

Catholics have become so mainstream in America that, according to a poll, they are indistinguishable from the general population.

In a poll of 876 Catholic adults released Monday by the California-based Barna Group, Catholics shy away from discussing their religious views openly and reading the Bible, and rank below the average American adult in basic religious practices.

The survey was released while the Vatican made two moves to correct liberalizing trends stemming from some interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. On Saturday, it loosened the rules on celebrating the old Tridentine Latin Mass; on Tuesday, it released a document saying that only Catholicism "has the fullness of the means of salvation."

The Barna poll found huge gaps in the church's American component.

Compared with the general populace, the average American Catholic donates 17 percent less money to church and is 38 percent less likely to read the Bible, 67 percent less likely to attend Sunday school, 20 percent less likely to share their beliefs with someone of a differing viewpoint and 24 percent less likely to say their faith has changed their lives, according to the poll, which was conducted by phone in the latter half of 2006.

The poll has an error margin of 3.4 percentage points.

Answers given by Catholics were compared with a much larger sampling of adults who were asked at the same time about their religious practices. The total number of persons polled, including Catholics, was 4,014, with a sampling error of 1.7 percentage points.

Pollsters found that Catholics were 16 percent more likely than the norm to have attended church in the past week and 8 percent more likely to have prayed.

George Barna, a former Roman Catholic who is now an evangelical Protestant and who oversaw the poll, said Catholics have paid a price for shedding their immigrant roots to blend into the culture. He called them "faith-aware rather than faith-driven."

He added that "the cost of that struggle to achieve acceptance and legitimacy is that Catholics have largely lost touch with their substantial spiritual heritage." The data show, he said, "that some of their long-held distinctives, such as being champions of social justice, are no longer a defining facet of their community."

Other surveys point out sharp declines in religiosity among Catholics. A 2002 Gallup Poll estimated Catholic church attendance at 28 percent, compared with the 1950s and 1960s when three-quarters of all Catholics attended weekly Mass. A 2005 report, commissioned by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, on Catholics going to confession at least annually showed a drop in rates from 74 percent to 26 percent over a 20-year period.

Mary Gauthier, senior research associate for CARA, faulted the Barna report for misapplying a Protestant grid on Catholic practices.

"George Barna's whole agenda is evangelical Christianity, so some of the questions they asked are not relevant to Catholic understanding," she said. "Catholics are different; they are much more community-oriented, not evangelical, which is more based on proselytizing and converting others.

"Most Catholic churches don't offer Sunday school; instead, they have CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine], which is for young people. And Catholics get the Bible every Sunday at Mass. It is not as intrinsic to Catholic culture as it is to evangelical culture."

Mr. Barna denied the relevance of that charge, pointing out his upbringing, and saying, "No, I didn't ask 'Catholic' questions, but I asked Christian questions. Scripture is the yardstick here. Why shouldn't Catholics share their faith?"