Issue Date:  March 9, 2007

The 'bookend' generations

Two studies show important differences between youngest and oldest Catholics


Despite proclamations insisting on the unchanging nature of religious truth, the beliefs and practices of Catholic laity continue to evolve. Two recent sociological studies focus on important generational differences among Catholics. They indicate that younger Catholics are more individualistic, more tolerant of religious diversity and far less committed to the practices of their faith than older Catholics. Based on their findings, researchers speculate that the future Catholic church in the United States may be a fraction of the size it is now.

A longitudinal study that covers 18 years and documents changes among generations of Catholics was coordinated by William V. D’Antonio, professor of sociology and a fellow of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America. That study was based on four national surveys of lay Catholics conducted between 1987 and 2005 by D’Antonio and James D. Davidson, Dean Hoge and Mary Gauthier. (A full report on the study to date was published in NCR’s Sept. 30, 2005, edition.)

The second study focuses exclusively on Catholic college students. It was conducted in 2004 by Vincent Bolduc, professor of sociology at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. The study collected data on more than 1,600 students at five Catholic colleges.

Taken together, the two studies show differences among Catholics that are not merely reflective of differences in Catholics’ age and stage in the life cycle but mirror changes in both the societal culture and the church itself, said D’Antonio and Bolduc, who are coauthors of an article on “The Bookend Generations,” which appears on the online version of NCR. ( See story)

In the longitudinal study, four generations were identified. The youngest is the “Millennial generation” born between 1979 and 1987, now 20 to 28 years old. The oldest generation is the pre-Vatican II Catholics, born before 1941, now ages 66 and older. The middle two generations constituting three-quarters of current adult laity are today’s Baby Boomers who were teenagers when the Second Vatican Council was first convened in 1962, and the slightly younger generation, now 29 to 46, who have taken Vatican II for granted.

Looking at the two “bookend” generations of Catholics, Bolduc said that while changes in religious expression between parents and children are often sharp, the differences are even more dramatic when comparing Catholics with 40 or more years between them.

Pre-Vatican II Catholics grew up with the Latin Mass and dated theological views. About 17 percent of today’s Catholics are all that remain of this group. For them, “missing Mass was a grave sin, confession was expected before Communion, bishops were unquestioned authorities,” said D’Antonio.

On the other end, the Millennials are culturally more diverse than previous generations of Catholics, are distrustful of “moralistic judgments” and are inclined to accept cultural relativity as the only universal truth. “For them, missing Mass is an option, not a sure sign of ‘going to Hell,’ ” Bolduc said.

Bolduc said 80 percent of the Millennial college students disagreed with the statement, “Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions.” The college students take religious tolerance as a moral obligation and respect diversity of beliefs and behavior, he said.

Bolduc said the young Catholic students he studied are steeped in a national culture that often regards the Catholic sexual prohibitions against premarital sex, artificial birth control, abortion, divorce, women priests and homosexual behavior as anachronistic. “They live their lives squarely in the midst of the tension between individualism and the common good, and sometimes feel the tensions between the two extremes. It’s difficult to get them to be critical of the individualism that seems as natural as the air they breathe,” Bolduc said.

The “Depression-driven” Catholics who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church, often in ethnic parishes, show the highest rate of Mass attendance, 60 percent, with each successive generation having a lower norm: 40 percent, 30 percent and 15 percent.

While the national sample of Millennials has a weekly attendance rate of 15 percent, their peers at the five Catholic colleges are only marginally higher at 22 percent.

Both authors are concerned with the direction of these changes. The trend is troublesome, they say, for if the youngest generation -- including Catholic college students -- have established habits that move the church and the sacraments far from the center of their lives, it’s unlikely that this will change significantly as they age. “Once a generation has established a pattern of Mass attendance, evidence suggests that it does not change much throughout their lives. If we follow the present pattern, the church of 2050 may well be a fraction of its present size,” the authors said.

The college surveys found other evidence that gave them pause. Compared with their grandparents’ generation, the students are not strongly committed to marrying someone of their own faith or to raising their children as Catholics. Only one-quarter of the college Catholics say it is “very important” to marry someone of their own faith, and a bare majority say that it is “very important” to “raise [their] children in their own faith tradition.”

“Such tepid commitments,” the authors say, “hardly assures the continuation of their faith over the generations.”

The longitudinal study found overwhelming agreement across the generations that “how a person lives is more important than whether or not he/she is a good Catholic,” said D’Antonio.

Catholics across generations continue to accept as vital to their sense of being Catholic the basic teachings about Jesus; his life, death and resurrection; the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; and the need to reach out to the poor and needy. There were disparities, though, on issues related to governance and sexual morality, areas that both age cohorts thought of as less essential aspects of their faith. While 61 percent of the pre-Vatican II Catholics believe that a person can be a good Catholic without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control, 89 percent of the college students held similar beliefs.

“The general sense of what is sinful appears to have changed over these generations,” D’Antonio said. “For the pre-Vatican II group, personal sins -- missing Mass on Sunday, premarital sex, masturbation, lying -- were serious failings, while the Millennial Catholics see social sins -- bigotry, failing to give women equal rights, lack of respect for diversity, neglect of the poor -- as major ills they need to confront.”

The four national surveys carried out by D’Antonio et al. since 1987 are the basis of a recently published book, American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church. The surveys made clear the growing gap between church leaders and laity on what teachings are considered to be core elements of their beliefs and what are seen as peripheral. The findings also raise the question of what happens to claimed authority when it is increasingly questioned by all age cohorts.

The researchers noted little reaction among college students to the church’s sex abuse scandal, partly because it has been an issue for most of their lives. “Forty-five percent said they were ‘disturbed’ by these problems, but the events did not change [their] beliefs or behavior in any way.’ ” Bolduc said.

For the future church, popular opinion seems to be clearly on the side of opening the priesthood to more than celibate men. The pre-Vatican II generation is the least inclined to accept women as priests, but more than two-thirds of Catholics in each other cohort would accept married men as priests, and among the younger generations, large majorities would extend the right to women, while almost half of the pre-Vatican II generation would as well.

Interest among Catholic college students in the church’s social teachings is high, according to Bolduc and D’Antonio.

Bolduc found that the college students show positive statistical relationships between their spiritual practices and their commitments to social justice, with those committed to volunteering most likely to attend weekly Mass.

“What the young look for now are ways to integrate the Gospels into their life,” Bolduc said. “If the oldest generation of Catholics thought of moral goodness as avoidance of private sins, today’s young adults find the moral good in trying to live the church’s social teachings.”

D’Antonio said that the research indicates that what goes for the general Catholic population also applies to U.S. Hispanic Catholics.

The two studies underscore significant challenges facing the church in the United States.

“Even the Catholic college, now a major source of Catholic socialization in a church with declining options, is not able to stem the tide of declining Mass attendance and commitment to the church. Without a major transformation in the relationship between laity and church leaders, there is little in these studies to lead grandparents to expect their grandchildren to be joining them at Mass every Sunday,” Bolduc said.

Rich Heffern is an NCR writer and editor. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2007

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