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Younger American Catholics express slightly more real agreement with Church teaching and slightly less respect for its shepherds in a new poll by the  New York Times /CBS News. Women’s ordination was favored by 72 percent of Catholics between 45 and 64 and 68 percent of Catholics between 18 and 44. Support for birth control remains constant at 82 percent but opposition firms up, increasing from 11 to 15 percent at the expense of those who are unsure.

The above changes are relatively small and perhaps best explained by the rise of the “nones.” People who would have identified as Catholic a generation ago no longer are. More dramatic is the difference on the issue of allowing priests to marry. Lifting the celibacy requirement is favored by 76 percent of older Catholics but only 61 percent of younger Catholics—-a 15 point dropoff.

Perhaps most interesting is that even as we saw slight (and in the case of priestly celibacy, more dramatic) increases in expressed agreement with church teaching among young Catholics, those same Catholics showed less respect for clerical authority. When asked, “On difficult moral questions, which are you more likely to follow—-the teachings of the pope, or your conscience?” 13 percent of older Catholics went with the pope but only 9 percent of younger Catholics. Younger Catholics were also more likely to say that one could “disagree with the pope” on matters like abortion and gay marriage and still be a good Catholic.

Young Catholics are, somewhat ironically, more likely to express agreement with Church teaching and less likely to express deference to the pope. The sexual abuse crisis along with the general decline of public piety have strained Catholics’ inherited attachments to mother Church. Ties that once led many to identify as Catholic even as they rejected Church teaching are fraying.

Those who remain are increasingly there not because they identify with the Church’s leaders and institutions (the pope, the ethnic parish, the Catholic school) but because they assent to its teachings. Here comes Evangelical Catholicism.

Responses for Catholics age 45 - 64

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Responses for Catholics age 18 - 44

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