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."