The Catholic hierarchy in the United States is very concerned about religious illiteracy and its link to dissent from church teachings. This concern contains two important assumptions: that religious illiteracy is higher among younger Catholics than among older ones, and that religious illiteracy fosters disagreement with church teachings. But, is there any empirical basis for these assumptions? Is religious illiteracy really more widespread among younger Catholics than it is among older ones? Is there really a link between illiteracy and disagreement with church teachings? We explored these questions using a combination of previous research and results from our 2005 survey. The results raise serious doubts about both assumptions.
Read the complete article: Challenging assumptions about young Catholics.
There is a lot of technical jargon and statistics analysis. I recommend reading through all of it. The conclusion, however, sums up nicely.
First, religious illiteracy appears to be rather widespread. If half of Catholics do not feel they can explain their faith to others, we are inclined to agree with the bishops that religious illiteracy really is a problem in today’s church. The question is how much priority to give to illiteracy compared to other problems facing the church. Bishops have clearly made it a high priority. So far at least, lay people have not. A 2003 national survey shows that lay people give much higher priority to dealing with the problem of sexual abuse and doing something about the priest shortage than to the problem of religious illiteracy.
Note the difference in priorities between the bishops and laity. In the instance of the sex abuse problem, solving religious illiteracy is not going to end the problem. But the priest shortage is something that could be directly affected by a fuller understanding of the faith and the priesthood.
Second, religious illiteracy does not appear to be any more widespread among today’s young adults than among other Catholics. If anything, it is more pronounced among pre-Vatican II Catholics than among post-Vatican II Catholics and members of the Millennial generation. One implication of this finding is a recommendation that church leaders view religious illiteracy as an ongoing concern, not as a problem that is peculiar to the current generation of young adults. The church’s efforts to increase religious literacy should be oriented to Catholics of all ages, not just young adults.
This conclusion is at once superficially surprising, but at the same time really not surprising. Young adults of my generation and after as demographers and sociologists keep reminding us are leaving being the selfishness of the baby boomers of the 60s. This generation is embarking on journeys to find meaning, since its parents didn't provide it with any. Only this journey is in the opposite direction of sexual 'liberation', etc.
The third conclusion is pretty self-explanatory, so I won't comment... Personally though, I found the 'surprise' at finding no correlation between illiteracy and dissent to be rather amusing.
Third, there appears to be little or no connection between illiteracy and dissent. This finding has two implications. If the church puts a priority on increasing religious literacy, it should not assume that its efforts in this area will necessarily have the effect of increasing compliance with church teachings. Understanding the faith and agreeing with its tenets seem to be two quite separate processes. Also, if church leaders believe dissent is a problem that needs to be fixed, they should look elsewhere for its root cause, not at illiteracy. In this effort, leaders need to appreciate the fact -- evident in this study and several other studies we have done -- that there is relatively little dissent on issues such as the Resurrection that lay people may not fully understand but consider core teachings of the church. Dissent is greater on issues such as the need for a celibate clergy, which lay people may very well understand but do not consider core teachings. Thus, dissent is not so much a result of a lack of understanding as it is a disagreement with specific teachings that lay people do not believe are central to the faith.