Survey of South Jersey Catholics is ‘troubling’ to bishop

Posted: May 05, 2012

South Jersey Catholics know less about their faith and are less committed to its practice than their neighbors in other Christian denominations, according to a new survey that Bishop Joseph Galante calls “troubling.”

It found that the Diocese of Camden’s 500,000 Catholics are significantly less likely than other Christians to attend Sunday services, invite friends to visit their church, believe in the Bible, or understand Jesus’ divine nature.

In releasing the telephone survey of 612 adults, Galante said Wednesday he was particularly dismayed to learn that 57 percent of the Catholics believed Jesus had sinned during his time on Earth and was “no different” from other human beings — in sharp contrast to core church teaching that Jesus was without sin. Only 28 percent of non-Catholic Christians thought Jesus had sinned.

“What does this tell me?” the bishop said at a news conference. “It tells me most [Catholics] know the church’s moral teachings, about things like our objection to abortion and gay marriage ... but are woefully deficient” on matters of doctrine.

Galante also deplored the finding that only about 23 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly and said he intended to “make observing the Lord’s Day a priority.”

To that end, he said, he had instructed all pastors and youth-group leaders to no longer schedule sports games and practices on Sunday mornings, which he said were major diversions.

The $25,000 survey was conducted in February by the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling organization, which contacted adults of all faiths across Camden, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties. The results are to serve as the basis of a comprehensive effort to better form the faith of the Catholic community, with particular attention to young adults — the age when most Catholics who leave the church do so.

The diocese will also use the survey to devise ways to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of “unchurched” Christians in the six counties, who, the survey found, have not visited a church in at least six months.

The diocese will “not snare believers away from other churches,” Galante said, but will “invite those seeking a faith community.” Forty percent of all adults surveyed said they did not attend church regularly, which was significantly higher than the national average of 29 percent.

The report comes at the close of an extensive reconfiguration of the diocese that Galante launched four years ago, in which he reduced the number of parishes from 124 to 70.

Galante has said the closings were necessary in part because nearly a third of parishes were not financially viable and because the supply of priests was declining, but also because he believed that fewer, larger parishes would prove more “vibrant” and attractive centers of community and spiritual life.

Msgr. Roger McGrath, vicar general of the diocese, said the survey was intended to provide diocesan leaders with a “baseline” of data that would help them identify areas of weakness and strength as they sought to evangelize to Catholics and non-Catholics.

Among the other findings: •?82 percent of adults in the Camden diocese identify as Christian. Of those, 34 percent are Catholic, 35 percent Protestant, and 12 percent unaffiliated. •?38 percent of Catholics attend Mass only on special holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, whereas just 25 percent of other Christians in the survey reported holiday-only church attendance. •?While 43 percent of those surveyed said they were raised as Catholics, only 34 percent still considered themselves Catholic, and 52 percent of those described themselves as “practicing” Catholics.

“Our eucharistic table is missing too many members and families,” Galante said. He added, however, that the old threat that a person was committing a mortal sin and would go to hell for missing Mass was no longer a useful incentive.

Christians in the first century gathered for worship “because they had a relationship with Jesus,” he said. “We have to get back to that.”

Contact David O’Reilly at 610-313-8111 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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