Though the media has devoted frantic energy to covering the beliefs, fashion and even the potato-eating habits of Millennials, not much of that reporting has been devoted just to Catholic Millennials. What little has been penned on the patterns and stereotypes of Millennial Catholics—roughly defined as those born between the early 1980s and aughts—is erratic. It could be that Millennials are leaving the church in droves; or they are staying in the church but becoming more conservative and, specifically, more antiabortion; or they are being drawn back into the church because of their connection to Pope Francis.
There are hundreds of photographs to support the latter conclusion. Whether in the Philippines, South Korea or Sardinia, images of young crowds cheering and waving flags are the way we most often see Millennial Catholics interacting with their faith. In 2013, Francis mingled with young admirers to pose for the first papal selfie with several teens from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio. That year, pictures of World Youth Day showed thousands of young Catholics flooding the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro to hear the new pontiff say Mass. Though it may seem as if this fervor is a byproduct of the “Pope Francis effect,” there has always been a young following for every pope. Whether it’s the charismatic John Paul, or even the reserved Benedict, popes have always been buoyed by young -Catholics’ optimism for faith and their community.
When Pope Francis visits the United States in the fall, he will no doubt be surrounded by these eager young Catholics. What do these Catholics—who will be photographed as the face of the future church—really believe?
Between March and April, Belden Russonello Strategists (BRS) conducted a poll for Catholics for Choice using a GfK Knowledge Panel sample of 819 American Catholics born between 1981 and 1997 that was probability-based and web-enabled. The sampling error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The survey was followed up by two focus groups consisting of Catholic Millennials in Chicago.
CONNECTING WITH THE POPE BUT NOT POLICIES
Young Catholics do love their pope. More than six in 10 (64 percent) have a positive opinion of Pope Francis. Forty—six percent said their opinion of him was very favorable, and 18 percent said somewhat favorable. Only two percent found him unfavorable.
But Millennials appear to have tuned out the hype and honed in on some of the exceptions to Francis’ more pastoral and “welcoming” church. On issues for which the pope has declared that the door to change is closed—such as abortion, contraception, women’s ordination—large majorities of Millennials want to throw the doors open. Seventy-four percent believe that programs sponsored by the Catholic church should be providing condoms to fight the spread of HIV & AIDS—a practice the hierarchy has rejected worldwide. Seventy–five percent of Catholic Millennials want women to serve an equal role in the Catholic church.
When it comes to religion and public policy, most Millennials draw a bright line between church and state. For instance, young Catholics do not think Communion should be a tool of punishment. These Millennials broadly disapprove of Catholic bishops withholding Communion from Catholics who are divorced or remarried (78 percent), who support legal abortion (71 percent), or who support same-sex marriage (74 percent). More than three-quarters do not feel they must follow the recommendations of the bishops when deciding for whom to vote (80 percent). A large proportion (77 percent) does not believe that politicians who are Catholic have an obligation to vote on issues the way that the bishops recommend.
Our poll revealed that Millennials embrace the real meaning of religious -liberty, and not the counterfeit definition that the US Catholic Conference of Bishops has thrown around in recent years. A large majority of Catholic Millennials believes it should be illegal for Catholic institutions, such as churches, schools, hospitals or social service agencies, to fire or refuse to hire a person because that person is openly gay or l-esbian (71 percent oppose); supports abortion rights (75 percent); uses birth control (79 percent); undergoes artificial insemination in order to have a baby (80 percent); or is in a couple, living together and unmarried (78 percent).
On the surface, it could appear that young Catholics might find a kindred spirit in Pope Francis, who said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” But like Catholics of any age, they can see that his famous comment about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” hasn’t turned into a new Catholic teaching on LGBT issues. Francis’ “church of the marginalized” hasn’t really left the hierarchy’s doctrinal comfort zone. Nowhere is this truer than with the issues of reproductive rights.
BELIEF IN REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
The right of women to decide for themselves about reproductive health is a clear position among these Millennials, and their beliefs put them squarely in the mainstream of American public opinion.
On the topic of abortion, Catholic Millennials believe the same as the entire US population, including older Catholics.
Francis has expressed the hierarchy’s unchanged condemnation of abortion in all circumstances as “a sin against God” that springs from “selfishness.” Yet, 24 percent of young Catholics believe abortion should be legal in almost all cases, 27 percent say it should be legal in most cases and three in 10 support legal abortion in just a few cases (31 percent). In 2012, when we asked the same question about abortion in a national survey of adults—Catholics and non-Catholics—we found the general public held about the same attitudes as our present sample of young Catholics. Among the general public, legal abortion is supported in all cases by 28 percent, and 21 percent support it in most cases. Thirty–five percent support it in a few cases.
On the issue of birth control, 77 percent believe all women should have the same access to no-cost birth control, no matter where they work. Seventy-eight percent think that health insurance companies should be required to include birth control in their insurance coverage. This stance is in line with the larger Catholic population’s acceptance of modern forms of birth control as a moral choice that should be left up to individual conscience.
SUPPORT FOR EQUALITY AND INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM
Millennials are a much more diverse generation than those past, which may account for the strong value placed on social equality. In our poll, they expressed strong beliefs in equality and individual freedom. They favor greater equality in the workplace, and they oppose institutions or individuals using religion as a reason to deny services or jobs to anyone.
They also support a personal right to die. Sixty-one percent think it should be legal for doctors to assist terminally ill people in ending their own life. A 2013 Pew Research survey reported that 47 percent of the American public supported “doctor-assisted suicide,” with 49 percent opposed.
This cohort is clear-cut on LGBT issues. Sixty-nine percent of our sample believe that it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry in all states.
The most recent Pew Research poll (2015) of all adults nationwide reports that 57 percent support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, with 39 percent opposed. We also found that 79 percent of Catholic Millennials oppose allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay men and lesbians because of the religious views of the business owners.
Francis has kept the hierarchy’s hard line against same-sex marriage and women’s equality in the church. These beliefs certainly don’t fit the diverse individuals and families who will be the future for the faith going forward.
A MILLENNIAL PERSPECTIVE IS A CATHOLIC PERSPECTIVE
Like the majority of Catholics, Catholic Millennials don’t see anything to fear in the prospect of a more equal, more open church that supports reproductive rights and LGBT rights as matters of conscience. Catholics overall remain hopeful about reform. A 2013 Pew survey found that about half of all US Catholics (53 percent) say the church definitely or probably will change to allow birth control over the next 40 years or so. Roughly four in 10 (37 percent) believe that by the year 2050 women will be ordained as priests.
Maybe Millennials will help shepherd in the change that Catholics have been hoping for. The next time Pope Francis is surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic young Catholics, we hope that he stops to listen to their visions of the future church, not just to pose for a selfie.