Helping the poor and believing Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist are essential to being Catholic.
What's not essential? Celibate male priests, teachings that oppose the death penalty or support for organized labor.A poll of 701 post-baby boom Catholics sought to gauge what is nonnegotiable about their faith. It found them agreeing with older members in putting the sacraments first but more inclined to accept married and women clergy and lower ecclesiastical fences with Protestants.
"There's no doubt, after looking at this data and at other data, that the younger people would be willing to re-examine things," said sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University of America.
He joined CU colleague William Dinges, Sister Mary Johnson of Emmanuel College in Boston, and Juan Gonzalez of the University of California at Hayward to commission a telephone poll as part of a larger study of young Catholics.
Princeton Survey Research Associates interviewed the Catholics aged 20 to 39 last fall. The results, released to The Associated Press, show that "the sacraments are very strong, and almost the central identity of what Catholics are all about," Hoge said.
Asked what should be essential beliefs, 65 percent of respondents identified God's presence in the sacraments, while 58 percent cited Christ's presence in the Eucharist.
Other key aspects of Catholic faith were devotion to Mary and the saints, the necessity of a pope, and weekly obligation to attend Mass. More than 80 percent of respondents termed these elements essential or important to being Catholic.
Concern for the poor was also central to Catholic identity. Nearly 60 percent called charitable help essential to the faith, and 52 percent identified as essential a belief that God is present in a special way in the poor.
Not all church teachings or rules are held in high regard, according to the survey.
Only 17 percent deemed it "essential" to believe that priests must be male, and only 27 percent that they cannot marry. Another 25 percent considered a male priesthood - and a celibate one - to be "important" but not essential.
Eighteen percent were unaware of church support of workers' rights to unionize, and only 14 percent identified such support as essential to the faith. Twenty-two percent saw opposing the death penalty as essential to being Catholic.
The pollsters gave a margin of error of 4 percent.
Young Catholics also expressed an openness to other Christians.
Forty-eight percent said that in their main beliefs, today's Catholics are essentially no different from Protestants. Half said the Catholic Church is no more faithful to the will of Christ than other Christian churches.
James Davidson, a sociologist at Purdue University who has studied generational differences among Catholics, called the findings consistent with his research on Catholic identity. "There is a kind of hierarchy to truth," he said. "Some things are more important than others."
At the top of the hierarchy are core teachings found in the Nicene Creed such as the divinity and humanity of Jesus and his resurrection, followed by concern for the poor.
Many Catholics see other issues - the death penalty and female or married clergy - as non-critical aspects of faith. "People feel we can either negotiate these things or disagree in good faith," he said.