I can’t say I was exactly surprised by the results of a new Pew Research Center study on religious knowledge in our country. I’m sure most of us know someone in our own immediate family who left the Faith years ago, or who couldn’t name the seven sacraments if their life depended on it. But I will admit that — despite my own experience with poorly catechized relatives and friends — given the explosion of Catholic evangelization in the past 10 to 15 years, I was saddened and disappointed by the report that showed atheists and agnostics apparently know a lot more than we do about religion in general.
According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, it was not only atheists and agnostics but Jews and Mormons who scored higher than mainline Protestants and Catholics. Concerning questions about the Bible, Pew researchers found that Mormons and white evangelical Protestants show the highest levels of knowledge. Agnostics, atheists and Jews stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
The nationwide poll of more than 3,400 Americans 18 and older was conducted from May 19 to June 6. The questions asked did not exactly require a degree in theology. In fact, one would think the quiz could be answered by anyone with nothing more than a few Sunday school sessions. The questions were “Christianity 101.” For example, respondents were asked where Jesus was born, who led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, and the names of the four Gospel writers. But what was most disheartening was the question concerning the Eucharist. More than four out of 10 Catholics, or 43 percent of those surveyed, did not know that the Church teaches the bread and wine used for Communion are not symbols but during the consecration actually become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. For 43 percent of the Catholics questioned not to have grasped the source and summit of our Faith, well, that’s much more disconcerting than half of the Protestants questioned who failed to identify Martin Luther as the person whose actions sparked the Reformation.
Again, my reaction to the survey was more one of disappointment than surprise. I was hoping for better results, especially considering the growth in recent years of so many Catholic ministries that are reaching out to evangelize and re-catechize. Although we now have close to 200 Catholic radio stations across the country, many solid Catholic newspapers and websites to help explain and defend the Faith, we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to counteract the saturation of secular media. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released in January found that young people now use the media some 53 hours a week. Adults don’t fare much better at about 43 hours of media per week. But it’s obvious the folks questioned in the Pew survey were not exactly listening to Catholic radio, reading Our Sunday Visitor or visiting the Vatican website.
The survey brought me back to the words of the archbishop of Denver that were part of a presentation given last year on living out faith in the public square. Among the many home-run statements made by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, this one truly exemplifies the struggles before us in teaching American Catholics about the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith: “Catholics need to realize that many in the current generation haven’t just been assimilated into the culture. They have been absorbed, bleached and digested by it.”
Teresa Tomeo is the host of Catholic Connection, produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.