Only one out of four of the most active Catholics in the Washington archdiocese goes to confession more than once or twice a year, according to an archdiocesan survey of religious practices and attitudes of lay Catholics released last month.
Of the 8,577 Catholics from 90 parishes who responded to the church-sponsored survey, 97 percent said they attended mass at least once a week, with 29 percent attending more than once each week.
The findings are compiled from questionnaires voluntarily completed by parishioners and are not a scientific sample. "It's a good picture of those who attend mass on a regular basis," said the Rev. William English of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Parish Life and Worship, who coordinated the project.
"It didn't get out to those who don't attend mass on a regular basis," he added. National studies of Catholic life indicate that approximately 44 percent of adult Catholics attend mass weekly.
English said the sharp decline in going to confession, now known as the sacrament of penance, even among the most faithful Catholics, was "consistent with the priests' experience in the average parish."
Sixty-one percent of the respondents are women; 60 percent are over age 45; 87 percent are white; 66 percent said they are now married, while 7 percent are separated or divorced.
Responding to a series of attitudinal questions, 29 percent of this group of most active Catholics said their Catholicism has "no influence" on their attitude toward the issue of nuclear disarmament. The nation's Catholic bishops four years ago adopted a widely publicized pastoral letter condemning nuclear warfare and calling for disarmament efforts.
Only 31 percent of the questionnaire's respondents indicated that their bishops' teachings had much impact on their thinking about the issue. "It takes a while for the church's teaching to work its way down to the pulpit and into the church's life," English said of this response.
On other issues, 35 percent said being Catholic did not substantially influence their "praying and reading the scripture at home." While 50 percent said their Catholicism influenced their voting in state and federal elections, 35 percent said the church had little or no influence on their vote.
In a section in which respondents were asked to rate the church's response to the needs of 15 categories of people, 62 percent said AIDS patients and their families were being neglected by the church, along with single adults (55 percent), single parents (53 percent), divorced and separated persons (44 percent) and lesbian and gay persons (42 percent).
Among the groups "more than adequately responded to" by the church were the "financially well-off" (56 percent), "the poor" (53 percent), married couples with young children (52 percent), senior citizens (47 percent), Hispanics (43 percent) and blacks (37 percent).
Three out of four of those filling out the 69-question multiple-choice survey form agreed that parish priests should be freed from administrative details to spend more time in pastoral care.
English said he expected priests would take this finding to their parishioners and say, "This is what the survey says you want. Let's try to find some way of working it out so it can happen."
English said he found "most encouraging" the fact that 68 percent said the Sunday sermon affects the way they live their lives.
"Of course, that's the opinion of the people who come to mass every Sunday," he said. "It would have been marvelous if we could have gotten the opinion of those who stay away."