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 and 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 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.