Shocking Survey Results Under the Pope's Window
Rome's teenagers are increasingly distant from the Catholic faith
because no one teaches them the creed anymore. Cardinal Ruini sounds the alarm - by Sandro Magister
ROMA - This month in Italy, a book of apparently minor importance was released. It is the result of a survey on faith among the younger inhabitants of a city. But the city is Rome. The person who commissioned the study is Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar. And the results reveal a sharp break in the transmission of the Catholic faith to the younger generations, precisely in that Christian capital that sees crowds of young people gather around the pope.
Cardinal Ruini sees the results as sounding a strong alarm bell. From them he has seen confirmed the necessity of a "new evangelization": a question that regards not only Rome and Italy but also the whole world. Here is a presentation of the survey that originally appeared in the weekly Italian news magazine "L'espresso" (N. 16, April 10-17, 2003) under the title, "Little Faith and a Do-It-Yourself God ":
Cardinal Camillo Ruini was flabbergasted when he saw the first results of a survey on Rome's young people and faith. The idea of commissioning the survey came to him during the Holy Year of 2000 and after the festive show of religiosity demonstrated by the "papaboys," the name Italian media gave the pope's tens of thousands of youthful admirers. "Check it out," he ordered a researcher he trusted, Professor Mario Pollo, teacher of social pedagogy at Rome's Free University of Most Holy Mary Assumed, known by its Italian acronym, Lumsa. And here are the results, contained in a 400-page book published by Piemme. The book is titled "The Young Face of the Search for God" and contains a preface written by the cardinal who commissioned it.
The data that most alarmed Ruini is evidence that the Christian faith is threatening to go extinct in Catholicism's capital par excellence, the Rome of the popes. The new generations are the indication of this trend more so among youths aged 16 to 18 than among those in the 24 to 26 age bracket, the two age groups examined in the survey. The vestiges of Christianity are resisting only within the restricted circle of those who are most faithful. But in society as a whole, the desert is advancing. "One is no longer born a Christian, one becomes one," Ruini told the governing council of the Italian bishops' conference in late March. "And therefore we must draw the conclusions. We must begin evangelizing again."
In conducting his study, Pollo didn't pull out the usual questionnaires. He went deeper. He gave 120 Roman young people an hour and a half each to speak freely about their faith, and then he transcribed it all without altering a comma. The book contains the most poignant phrases, with the speaker identified only as male or female, as adolescent or young person, and as a member of a church group or not.
Members of such church groups are few, about one in 10. But it is striking that even within this protected island, Christian doctrine and practice vacillate. Among the teenagers who belong to church groups, a solid 12 percent doubt even the existence of God. And even among those who believe in his existence, nearly one in four doubt that he is the creator of heaven and earth.
Among those who are not church-group members, meanwhile, God is even more ephemeral. A large number believe that he exists but have a picture of him that is extremely vague, distant and completely abstracted from daily life.
No less so for their picture of Jesus. For three quarters of those interviewed, he is more like the protagonist of a television drama than the Jesus of the Gospel. And even those who affirm that he is the Son of God and believe in the Trinity express themselves in hesitating and bizarre ways, like the teenage boy who says:"Well, from what I've studied he is the Son of God, but real ly the way I see it, all those persons, these areas of the divine if you can call it that, are really the same person, really the same entity, let's say, the same thing, regardless of what I know of the Trinity being three things and finally one thing. I think it's like a unified mass of something superior and divine."
Regarding Jesus, there is one small datum that goes against the trend: Among adolescents who belong to church groups, centrality of faith in Jesus is rather well defined. Pollo sees this as an uncertain sign of renewal with respect to the total eclipse suffered by Jesus among the slightly older generati on: "Maybe it is the effect of more explicit Christian preaching, in the pope's wake."
The afterlife is another crucial point. Few of those interviewed denied life after death, and certainly never in a definitive way: Almost all of them maintain at least a slight opening to it that is linked to a feeling of anxiety in the face of the idea of their own life ending.
But even the great majority who believe in an afterlife imagine it in a way that is distant from Catholic tradition. Of heaven, hell and purgatory, only the first continues to receive a little credit. Hell is abolished by nearly all of them, including those who belong to church groups. Purgatory is practically extinct. And the life of paradise in a future world is described by nearly all without reference to God's presence there.
With regard to sexual morality, the most significant difference is between men and women. Among the men it doesn't even register. There's no difference among those who belong to church groups or not, and nearly all espouse emancipation from the precepts of the church and the pope. Sexual activity is practiced without any sense of guilt and in tranquil disagreement with the prohibitions of John Paul II, even among those who rush to praise him.
Males who belong to church groups distinguish themselves from their peers on only two points. The first is their explicit condemnation of casual sex and prostitution, which they contrast with a marked appreciation for stable sex ual relationships that are sustained by genuine sentiments of love. The second point, instead, is a curious benevolence toward masturbation, which conve rsely those who are far from the church judge rather badly.
What happens among young women is different. There is a large minority among them that purposely disassociates itself from the dominant trend. Half of those who are members of Catholic groups and a third of non-members say they agree with the church's prohibitions on premarital sex and contraception. And they are keen to point out that they don't live their own choice of chastity as an imposition but as an expression of respect for persons and love toward God and his law.
In general, the young women feel much closer to the church than the young men. Even 80 percent of women who are not part of Catholic groups express this feeling of closeness. While only men who belong to church groups "and not all of them" go to Mass on Sunday, many more women go to church weekly, even those who are not in groups.
"But the young women are not only more religious than young men," observes Pollo. "They are also richer and deeper than their male peers in describing and interpreting their own religiosity, independently of whether they belong or not to church groups."
And he adds: "It is a datum that corresponds to their greater maturity in general. Young women are more active than their male peers, they have better results at school, and they are more decisive about building their own future. Young men, by contrast, appear confused, disoriented, and still distant from elaborating their own gender identity, after decades of upheaval between the sexes."
The fact remains that even among the young women with a strong religious sentiment, Christian tradition shows itself to be largely worn out. "Evidently, both catechism and the religion hour have failed," comments Pollo. "But the true weak point is the family. Parents no longer transmit the faith to their children. At best, they act as tour operators, sending their children to the parish. But at home? Absolutely nothing."