WASHINGTON (OSV News) – A new survey indicates belief in spiritual entities continues to decline in the U.S. — and evangelization leaders say the data is a call for Catholics to examine their own witness to their faith.

Poll results released by Gallup July 21 show that 74% of U.S. residents believe in God, 69% in angels, 59% in hell and 58% in the devil.

A file photo shows a sparse congregation during Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in North Beach, Md. A new survey indicates belief in spiritual entities continues to decline in the U.S.; the data is a call for Catholics to examine their own witness to their faith, evangelization leaders told OSV News. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller)

The responses point to a new low in spiritual beliefs among U.S. residents, consistent with trends seen by Gallup – which has conducted the survey for the past two decades – and Pew Research Center.

The data also aligns with other indicators of waning religious interest in the U.S. Religious book sales were down 6% in 2022, while Christian and gospel music combined took just 1.7% of the total U.S. music market share in 2022, according to a year-end report from data company Luminate.

“I’m not surprised that belief in spiritual realities is dropping,” Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, said in an email to OSV News.

Bishop Cozzens, who is spearheading the U.S. bishops’ National Eucharistic Revival, said he has observed “a loss of the sense of the transcendence in the world” that often translates into a denial of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

“People don’t understand that the whole world is a sacrament, which points to the reality of God,” he said. “We are living in an increasingly materialistic culture that tends to deny spiritual realities, and for that reason people cannot understand that everything that exists points to a deeper, invisible, spiritual reality.”

When that spiritual reality fails to translate into acts of everyday virtue and charity, a disconnect occurs, said Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, in an email to OSV News.

“If our witness to the God in Christ is not accompanied by an evident way of life that demonstrates that we are actually Christ-like, we should not be surprised if people do not take our beliefs and practices seriously,” he said.

Compared with results from Gallup’s first poll of this kind in 2001, the latest Gallup data — collected from 1,011 adults representing current U.S. demographics — shows belief in God and heaven has tumbled 16 points. Belief in hell is down 12 points, with belief in the devil and angels falling 10 points each.

Gallup found that declining belief in God was matched by nearly equal increases in uncertainty and nonbelief. Nonbelief has outstripped uncertainty with regard to heaven, hell, angels and the devil.

Just over half of U.S. residents (51%) believe in all five spiritual entities, with 11% stating they do not believe in any of them. Seven percent are unsure about all of them, while 31% replied they believe in some of the entities but not others.

Gallup noted that rephrasing its question regarding belief in God produced “slightly different results,” with 81% in last year’s survey affirming their belief when they were not offered the option to say they were unsure.

Belief in all five entities trended higher among frequent churchgoers, Protestants, nondenominational Christians and Republicans, said researchers.

The current poll also showed Protestants as more likely than Catholics to believe in all five spiritual entities, although “broad majorities” of Catholics continue to believe in each. Differences between the two groups were more likely to involve belief in heaven, hell and the devil.

Income, age and education levels correlated with belief in all five spiritual realities, said Gallup. Those with annual household incomes under $40,000, those over 55 and adults without a college degree were most likely to profess belief, and women were more likely than men to believe in all of the concepts, except for the devil.

But Father Grunow said that “well-known and referenced” cultural factors do not alone account for the downturn in religious belief.

“People will only discover why belief in God matters if they are invited to encounter the God in whom we have faith,” he said. “Extending this invitation is the responsibility of all the baptized, and it cannot be delegated to institutions, or just presumed to have happened through the vapors of ethnicity.”

His own pastoral experience sheds light on some glaring gaps in missionary discipleship, he said — and “the usual suspects” for disaffiliation, such as “secularism, abuse scandals, the role of women (and) science versus faith” were not in evidence.

“I lived in one of the most secular cities in one of the most secularized states in this country, and … the most prevalent answer I received to the questions of why (the unaffiliated) did not believe in God or attend church services … was ‘because Christians are mean,'” he said. “Consider the results of the Gallup poll in relation to that insight and let it sink in.”

In addition, “you have to look at the anthropology of the human being” to evangelize, Marlon De La Torre, senior director of evangelization for the Diocese of Columbus, told OSV News. “You have to identify with that human being, understand what they’re going through.”

Presenting the Gospel as missionary disciples means “we can’t throw a tool or program at other human beings,” he said. “We have to throw another human being at them.”

“The heart leads to the heart,” he said, referencing the approach of St. Francis De Sales.

De La Torre also stressed the need for Catholics to be formed in their faith in order to share it effectively with others. “Tell me why you believe,” he said. “And not in theology terms. I’m not asking for Aquinas. I’m asking you to be real.”

Reversing the trends identified by the poll will be difficult in the short term, but “if we invite more and more people to an encounter with the living Jesus Christ, this will have a profound effect,” said Bishop Cozzens.

“When people encounter the truth of a reality they cannot see, but they can sense with their souls, then they are open to the truth of the spiritual world in which we live,” he said. “In fact, we live in a spiritual world where there is a great struggle happening. … Angels, demons, heaven, hell are profoundly real realities that affect us all. When people meet Jesus, they come to see this.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – While the release of the working document for the Synod of Bishops on synodality is expected sometime in early June, Pope Francis tried to respond to some of the questions and concerns about the synod process that already have been raised.

Pope Francis speaks to members of the Italian bishops’ conference and diocesan leaders involved in Italy’s national synod process May 25, 2023, in the Vatican audience hall. The pope addressed questions and concerns members of the group submitted about his notion of fostering a “synodal church.” (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Meeting at the Vatican May 25 with members of the Italian bishops’ conference and the people they chose to coordinate work for an Italian synod, the pope gave a succinct description of what he means by a “synodal church”:

“Every baptized person is called to actively participate in the life and in the mission of the church, starting from the specifics of one’s own vocation, in relationship with others and with the charisms given by the Spirit for the good of all. We need Christian communities in which space is enlarged, where everyone can feel at home, where pastoral structures and means foster not the creation of small groups, but the joy of being and feeling co-responsible.”

Evangelization is at stake, he said. “A church weighed down by structures, bureaucracy and formalism will struggle to walk in history at the pace of the Spirit, meeting the men and women of our time.”

“The great enemy of this process,” he said, “is fear.”

Pope Francis said that as he entered the Vatican audience hall for the meeting, someone — using an Argentinian phrase that is not very polite, nor is its translation in Italian, he said — told him that the whole synod process is creating a mess.

“Think about the apostles on the morning of Pentecost,” the pope said. If the synod is “a blank,” he said to laughter, “Pentecost morning was even worse. It was worse. Total disorder. And who provoked that mess? The Holy Spirit. He’s good at creating disorder to move people. But the same Spirit also provoked harmony.”

“Don’t be afraid when there is disorder provoked by the Spirit,” Pope Francis said. One need fear “only when it is provoked by our selfishness or the spirit of evil.”

Speaking just a few days before Pentecost, the pope urged everyone, but especially the fearful, to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who opens people to listen to others, who makes dialogue fruitful, enlightens discernment and guides choices and decisions.

Pope Francis told the bishops and representatives that he would try to respond to their questions about “the priorities for the church in relation to society, about how to overcome resistance and concerns, on the involvement of priests and lay people, and on the experiences of marginalization.”

Church unity and shared responsibility are essential, he said. An “always lurking” temptation is to rely on “a few ‘qualified actors’ who carry out pastoral activity” while the rest of the faithful stand by and watch.

“Sometimes one gets the impression that religious communities, chanceries and parishes are still too self-referential,” Pope Francis said.

“There seems to creep in, somewhat covertly, a kind of “defensive neoclericalism’ – clericalism is a perversion,” he said. It is “generated by a fearful attitude, by complaints that the world does not understand us anymore, that young people are lost and by a need to reiterate and make one’s influence felt.”

Obviously, the pope said, a “synodal church,” one where all are welcome, where all share the mission and contribute their prayer, time and talents will have an impact on those the Catholic Church still believes have been chosen by God and given special gifts to lead and to discern.

“We must ask the Holy Spirit to make us understand and experience how to be ordained ministers and how to exercise ministry in this time and in this church: never without the Other with a capital ‘O,’ but also never without others with whom we share the journey.”

“This applies to the bishops, whose ministry cannot do without that of priests and deacons” and to priests and deacons who must work with each other and the faithful, the pope said. “But this is also true for the entire community of the baptized, in which each one walks with other brothers and sisters in the school of the one Gospel and in the light of the Spirit.”

Promoting co-responsibility in the church, he said, is not simply a matter of finding a new way to “distribute power.”

Rather, he said, it means learning how to recognize the gifts of each person, particularly those “who still struggle to see their presence recognized in the church, those who do not have a voice, those whose voices are drowned out or even silenced or ignored, those who feel inadequate perhaps because they have difficult or complex life paths (and) are sometimes almost ‘excommunicated’ a priori.”

Part of the goal of synodality, he said, is to “let God’s heart shine through – a heart open to all and for all.”

Pope Francis said those already active in the church need to remember the parable of the wedding feast from Matthew 22. “When none of the invited guests show up, what does that gentleman say? ‘Go to the crossroads and call everyone.’ Everyone: sick, healthy, righteous, sinners, everyone, everyone.”

“We should ask ourselves how much space we make and how much we really listen in our communities to the voices of young people, women, the poor, those who are disappointed, those who have been hurt in life and are angry with the church,” the pope said. “As long as their presence remains sporadic in ecclesial life overall, the church will not be synodal, it will be a church of the few.”