adultery

Young Catholics wrestle with truth

In one of the defining works of his historic papacy, Pope John Paul II argued that if people -- believers and nonbelievers alike -- want true freedom and peace, they must accept the reality of "universal and unchanging moral norms." "When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions. ... Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal," wrote the pope, in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth").

"In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels."

It would be stating the matter mildly to say that young Catholic adults in America disagree with John Paul II on this issue, according to a new survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

An overwhelming 82 percent of Catholic Millennials -- the generation between 18-29 years of age -- agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative; there is no definite right and wrong for everybody." In comparison, 64 percent of other Millennials affirmed that statement, when questioned by researchers with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Older "American Catholics" were also more willing to embrace moral relativism than were other Americans, at the rate of 63 percent compared with 56 percent. However, a slim majority of "Practicing Catholics" in the survey -- 54 percent -- were willing to affirm the statement, "Morals are fixed and based on unchanging standards."

"Practicing Catholics" were defined as "those who attend religious services at least once a month," explained Barbara L. Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll. This group included "Catholics who attend services more than once a week, once a week, or once or twice a month excluding weddings and funerals," she said.

As stark as those numbers are, it's important to understand that these broad Catholic categories include different kinds of believers who have different beliefs and lifestyles, said Andrew Walter, vice president for media research and development for the Knights of Columbus. For church leaders, the "Practicing Catholics" category will offer more insights into what is happening in pews.

"You have to ask, 'Who is truly connected to their faith? Who is doing something with it?' When you talk about these 'Practicing Catholics,' you are not talking about the Christmas and Easter crowd," he said. "These people have an ongoing link to a Catholic parish and they are doing something with it."

While the poll contains evidence that what Pope Benedict XVI has called a "dictatorship of relativism" may be growing stronger, the numbers also show that young Catholic adults share a yearning for some kind of moral order -- even if they reject the existence of moral absolutes. It's possible to "drill down" into the research, said Walter, and see that when young Catholics are forced to wrestle with individual issues "they are willing to make judgment calls and say that some things are right and some things are wrong."

For example, 91 percent of Catholic Millennials affirmed that adultery is morally wrong, 66 percent said abortion is immoral and 63 percent rejected assisted suicide. When asked to identify virtues that are "not valued enough in American society," 82 percent selected "commitment to marriage," making that the top choice.

But there was a flip side to this moral coin. Only 20 percent of these young Catholic adults agreed with their church's teachings that premarital sex is morally wrong and, thus, sinful. Only 35 percent affirmed doctrines that forbid sexual relationships between homosexuals.

While Catholic Millennials are interested in spiritual growth, only 43 percent said that American society doesn't place enough value on "religious observance," putting that choice in last place. In another answer sure to raise clergy eyebrows, 61 percent affirmed that it's "okay for someone of your religion to also practice other religions" at the same time.

"They want to say they are relativists, but it's also clear that they are not relativists on all issues," stressed Walter. "They have a strong spiritual sense that they say is important in their lives. What they don't have is a place for institutional religion in their lives. ... The problem is that you have some people who have a church and others who really have no church at all."

Sex, sin and surveys

It's becoming more and more dangerous for preachers to use the words "sex" and "sin" in the same sentence.

Consider this question: Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Say "yes" and millions of believers who are sitting in pews will say "amen." But that same affirmation of centuries of doctrine will offend just as many believers and nonbelievers, giving them an easy excuse to avoid congregations they believe are old fashioned and intolerant.

"We have to recognize that our historic positions on sexual issues are becoming incredibly distasteful to more people in this culture and especially to our media and popular culture," said Ed Stetzer, director of the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team.

"The whole 'Hate the sin, love the sinner' thing -- people are not getting that anymore. People do not believe that we mean that."

Right now, the gay-marriage issue is making headlines. But for millions of traditional believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other faiths, this issue is linked to a question rooted in religious doctrine, not modern politics. In a spring LifeWay survey, researchers asked: "Do you believe homosexual behavior is a sin?"

The results showed a culture torn in half, with 48 percent of American adults saying that homosexual acts are sinful and 45 percent disagreeing. Considering the margin for error, this is a virtual tie.

The numbers were radically different in different pews, with only 39 percent of Roman Catholics believing that homosexual acts are sinful, as opposed to 61 percent of Protestants and 79 percent of those who identified as evangelical, "born again" or fundamentalist Christians.

A similar pattern emerged from a hot-button question in the latest results reported from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Researchers in this massive effort asked participants which of the following statements "comes closer to your own views -- even if neither is exactly right. 1 -- Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society, OR 2 -- Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society."

The question was not stated in strictly political or religious terms. However, with that powerful, more official word "discouraged" in the question, 50 percent of the adults surveyed said that "homosexuality" in general, as opposed to homosexual behavior, should be accepted by society.

Once again, there were sharp differences in various religious groups, with 79 percent of American Jews, 58 percent of Catholics and 56 percent of mainline Protestants calling for acceptance of homosexuality. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of the members of historically black churches, 27 percent of Muslims and 26 percent of the evangelical Protestants affirmed the public acceptance of homosexuality.

These numbers are evidence of great change in the religious and moral views of many Americans, yet they also point toward familiar tensions between traditionalists and progressives. The Pew Forum survey, for example, again demonstrated a reality seen in recent elections. Americans who frequently attend worship services and say that religion is very important in their lives continue to take more conservative stands on hot moral issues in public life.

What about people outside the pews? That is where another set of statistics will prove especially distressing to clergy who sincerely want to defend what Stetzer called the ancient "one man, one woman, one lifetime" doctrine of marriage.

In the LifeWay survey, 32 percent of American adults said that their decision to visit or join a congregation would be "negatively affected" if it taught that homosexual behavior is sin. That number rose to 49 percent among the "unchurched," people who rarely or never attend worship.

The issue of homosexuality does not, of course, stand alone, said Stetzer. It's getting harder for religious leaders to maintain consistent teachings about other acts and conditions that traditional forms of religion have, for centuries, considered sin. This affects preaching on premarital sex, divorce, cohabitation and adultery.

"Ultimately, the modern church has failed to proclaim and explain a biblical ethic of sexuality," he said. "We also need to admit that the church has failed to live out the ethic that it's claiming to be advocating. If we are going to say that we stand for the sanctity of marriage, then we -- in our churches and in our homes -- are going to have to live out the sanctity of marriage."

Searching for Catholic sins

One tough challenge that Catholic shepherds face, Pope Benedict XVI said this past Lent, is that their flocks live in an age "in which the loss of the sense of sin is unfortunately becoming increasingly more widespread."

The pope has consistently described the forces at work as "pluralism," "relativism" and "secularism."

"Where God is excluded from the public forum the sense of offence against God -- the true sense of sin -- dissipates, just as when the absolute value of moral norms is relativized the categories of good or evil vanish, along with individual responsibility," he told a group of Canadian bishops, early in his papacy.

"Yet the human need to acknowledge and confront sin in fact never goes away. ... As St. John tells us: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.' "

But there's a problem at pew level. Many American Catholics who regularly attend Mass simply do not agree with their church when it comes time to say what is sinful and what is not. In fact, according to a recent survey by Ellison Research in Phoenix, if the pope wanted to find large numbers of believers who share his views on sin he should spend more time with evangelical Protestants.

For example, 100 percent of evangelicals polled said adultery is sinful, while 82 percent of the active Catholics agreed. On other issues, 96 percent of evangelicals said racism is sin, compared to 79 percent of Catholics. Sex before marriage? That's sin, said 92 percent of the evangelicals, while only 47 percent of Catholics agreed.

On one of the hottest of hot-button issues, 94 percent of evangelicals said it's sinful to have an abortion, compared with 74 percent of American Catholics. And what about homosexual acts? Among evangelicals, 93 percent called this sin, as opposed to 49 percent of the Catholics.

The Catholics turned the tables when asked if it's sinful not to attend "religious worship services on a regular basis," with 39 percent saying this is sin, compared to 33 percent of the evangelicals.

In this survey, a Catholic was defined as "someone who attends Mass at a Catholic parish at least once a month or more," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research. The goal was to focus on the beliefs of active members, as opposed to ex-Catholics and "cultural Catholics" who rarely, or never, go to Mass.

The researchers also collected data on church-attending Protestants and this group -- mixing mainline Protestants and those in conservative churches -- tended to give answers that were more conservative than those from by Catholics, but more liberal than those given by evangelicals. Sellers said his team sifted evangelicals out of the larger Protestant pool by asking participants to affirm or question basic doctrinal statements, such as, "The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches" and "Eternal salvation is possible through God's grace alone."

The split between Catholics and evangelicals jumped out of the statistics.

"It's hard to talk about what could have caused this without doing in-depth research that would let us move beyond speculation," he said. "But you can't look at these numbers without asking: Why are American evangelicals more likely to have a Catholic approach to sin than American Catholics?"

It's clear that most Americans are operating with definitions of sin that are highly personal and constantly evolving, said Sellers. These beliefs are linked to faith, morality, worship and the Bible, but are also affected by trends in media, education and politics. For example, 94 percent of political conservatives believe there is such a thing as sin, compared to 89 percent of political moderates and 77 percent of liberals.

The declining numbers on certain sins would have been even more striking if the Ellison researchers hadn't added a strategic word to its survey. The study defined "sin" as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective."

Note that linguistic cushion -- "almost."

"We had to put that 'almost' in there," said Sellers. "Most Americans do not believe in absolute truths, these days. So if you present them with a statement that contains an absolute truth, people are immediately going to start challenging you and looking for some wiggle room. ... They just can't deal with absolute statements and that messes up your survey."

Thou shalt not say 'adultery'

Journalist Pamela Druckerman didn't think it would be hard to discuss sex issues with Alain Giami of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

After all, he was one of the top sex researchers in a nation known for its freewheeling, laissez faire attitudes about matters of the heart. However, Giami silenced her when she used a dangerous word.

"What do you call 'infidelity'? I don't know what 'infidelity' is," he said, in what the former Wall Street Journal correspondent later described as a "rant."

"I don't share this view of things, so I would not use this word," he added, and then delivered the coup de grace. "It implies religious values."

Thank goodness Druckerman didn't say "adultery." For most researchers, this term has become a judgmental curse that cannot be used without implying the existence of the words "Thou shalt not commit." This issue came up over and over as she traveled the world doing interviews for her book "Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee."

"If I asked someone, 'Have you ever committed adultery?', it was like God entered the room at that moment," said Druckerman, reached at her home in Paris. "That really is the religious word, 'adultery.' I had to start saying 'infidelity' or use a more careful combination of words."

While she didn't set out to write a book about sex and religion, Druckerman found that in large parts of the world -- from Bible Belt cities to Orthodox Jewish enclaves, from Islamic nations to post-Soviet Russia -- it's hard to talk about infidelity without talking about sin, guilt, confession, healing and a flock of other religious topics.

However, she also reached a conclusion that many clergy will find disturbing. When push comes to shove, cheaters are going to do what they're going to do -- whether God is watching or not.

What does faith have to do with it? Not much. That's the bad news. The good news is that there is evidence that adultery is nowhere near as common as most religious people think it is.

Take, for example, the numbers that many consider "gospel" on this issue -- the claims by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th Century that half of American men and a quarter of women have cheated on their spouses. While some writers keep using these statistics, Druckerman said they are "extremely problematic."

Recent studies offer a vivid contrast. In the early 1990s, she noted, 21 percent of American men and 10 percent of women said they had cheated while married. In 2004, 21 percent of men and 12 percent of women said they had strayed at least once.

Meanwhile, 3.8 percent of married French men and 2 percent of married French women say they've had an affair during the past year -- in one of the world's most secular nations. And in highly religious America? The parallel figures are 3.9 percent of the married men and 3.1 percent of the women.

While Americans remain obsessed with adultery, this now seems to be rooted in this culture's commitment to an "ubermonogamy" built on the all-powerful doctrines of modern romance, argued Druckerman. Lacking shared religious convictions -- while living in the era of no-fault divorce -- millions of Americans have decided that having a happy, fulfilling, faithful marriage is an entitlement, a kind of sacrament in and of itself.

If a marriage crashes, both religious and non-religious Americans usually place their faith in another substitute for the old structures of faith and family. They turn to professional counselors linked to what Druckerman calls the "marriage industrial complex," where, for a price, repentance and restoration can take place in public or in private. Ask Bill Clinton about that.

All of this represents the reality of America's "sexual culture," which, while it may have Puritanism in its DNA, has also been shaped by the modern sexual revolution.

"Even when I talked to religious people about adultery, they weren't really worried about God, about God striking them down for their sins," concluded Druckerman. "Americans just don't think that way now. Even the religious people were more worried about what their families, or perhaps the people in their religious communities, would think of them. ...

"When it comes to matters of infidelity, Christian Americans act more like Americans than they do like Christians."