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."