logo Click here for figures and tables mentioned in this article. Please use your browser’s back button to return to the story.
e-mail us

Special Report

Generations have different views of the church


In Laity: American and Catholic and again in The Search for Common Ground, I have argued that today’s Catholics fall into three rather distinct cohorts: pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II.

The pre-Vatican II generation was born in the Roaring ’20s and the economic depression of the 1930s. Members of this generation fought in World War II. They are part of what Tom Brokaw has called “the greatest generation.” They also grew up in the pre-Vatican II church. They experienced virulent and widespread forms of anti-Catholicism. They lived in the so-called “Catholic ghetto” comprised of Catholic neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, newspapers and social groups. The priests and sisters who headed these Catholic organizations taught lay people that the Catholic church is the one true church. Pre-Vatican II Catholics grew up with Latin Masses, novenas, Benedictions, priests facing the altar (not the people) and Gregorian chant. They learned to “pray, pay and obey.”

The Vatican II (or baby boom) generation came of age in the 1950s and ’60s. It experienced the social and political tranquility of the Eisenhower years, followed by a sudden switch to the turmoil associated with the social movements of the 1960s. Its formative years included both the conservatism of the 1950s and the liberalism of the ’60s. While society did a 180-degree turn during this generation’s formative years, so did the church. This generation grew up in “the old church,” but Vatican II occurred right in the middle of its teenage and young adult years. Suddenly, the church changed. Priests turned toward the people; Latin was replaced by English; organs were replaced by guitars; Gregorian chant was replaced by folk tunes; the sacrifice of the Mass became the celebration of the Mass. These are just some of the reasons why the Vatican II generation often seems a bit more schizophrenic than the others.

The post-Vatican II generation (mostly Gen Xers) is the product of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. It has grown up in one of the most conservative and economically divisive periods of the 20th century. It has seen taxes and the role of government decline, and it has witnessed a growing gap between the rich and poor. It also has seen revolutionary advances toward equality for women and a technological explosion, especially in the use of computers and the Internet. This generation has been raised in the wake of Vatican II. It learned that its members are on their own personal “faith journeys.” They were taught that their personal relationship with God is more important than the church. They were taught that being a good Christian is more important than the religious group to which one belongs. They learned that there are more similarities than differences between Catholics and persons in other Christian churches. They take it for granted that the Mass is said in English and that priests face the people. For all they know, religion instructors have always been lay people and altar servers have always included girls.

The experiences generations have during their formative years affect the developmental stages of their lives. But, as Doug Walrath says in his book Frameworks, even as generations mature “they perceive the same experiences differently from those socialized previously, who are now side by side with them in the same period. In important respects they never grow up to take on the same perspectives their elders hold.” In other words, each generation has its own formative experiences, which affect its outlook on life (including its approach to faith and morals) for years to come.

In our 1993 survey, we found that the pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations were similar in certain respects. For example, a majority in all three generations expressed a preference for democratic decision-making and lay participation at all levels of church life. But, there also were generational differences in their views of authority and the importance of the church. Post-Vatican II Catholics were most inclined to say that individual lay persons, not church leaders, have the “final say” in decisions related to sexuality and marriage. They also were least inclined to say that the church is an important part of their lives and that they would never leave the church. They also were least likely to attend Mass on a weekly basis.

In the 1995 survey other colleagues and I did for The Search for Common Ground, we also reported similarities and differences between the three generations. The greatest similarities were on the importance they all attached to “pan-Vatican II” beliefs such as the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Mary as the Mother of God, and Real Presence. They also were similar in not being terribly active in new devotional practices such as Bible study and prayer groups.

However, they were quite different in their views of the church. Post-Vatican II Catholics were more favorable than the other cohorts were to the idea of ordaining women. They also were most likely to say that one can be a good Catholic without attending Mass on a regular basis. And they were most likely to disagree with the church’s teachings on sexual and reproductive issues.

In a 1997 study, Dinges, Hoge, Johnson and Gonzales found high levels of agreement among young people on the importance of sacraments, the church’s social teachings, the Real Presence and Mary as the Mother of God. Young people attached far less importance to other institutional matters, such as the need for private confession, the need for celibacy among priests and the church’s view that only men can be priests (see Commonweal, July 17, 1998, pages 13-18).

Our 1999 survey once again indicates that all three generations attach importance to core beliefs such as Mary as the Mother of God, and the Real Presence (see Dean Hoge’s article elsewhere in this section). That’s the good news. The bad news is that the generations have different views of the institutional church (see Table 9).

As we scan from the pre-Vatican II to the post-Vatican II generation, we find less and less attachment to the church. Compared to pre-Vatican II Catholics, post-Vatican II Catholics are less likely to say the church is an important part of their lives and that they would never leave the church. They also are less likely to attend Mass and pray regularly. They are more likely to say one can be a “good Catholic” without embracing the church’s views on issues such as Mass attendance, birth control, abortion, marrying in the church, donating time and money to the church and helping the poor. They also are the most likely to say that individuals, not church leaders, have the final say in decisions related to marriage and sexual conduct. Finally, they are the most ready to accept back into the active priesthood former priests who have married, and to ordain women and married men.

It is fair to ask if these are simply age differences, rather than generational differences, as we claim they are. If they are simply age differences, as post-Vatican II Catholics age, they should start to think and act the same way Vatican II Catholics do. Also, as Vatican II Catholics age, their views of faith and morals should come to resemble those of pre-Vatican II Catholics. In other words, each group’s beliefs and practices should become more traditional as we move from 1987 to 1993 and 1999.

On the other hand, if these are generational differences, each group’s beliefs and practices should remain pretty stable over time. That is, post-Vatican II Catholics should think and act in much the same way in 1987, 1993 and 1999. So should Vatican II Catholics and pre-Vatican II Catholics.

The results in Table 10 support our claim that these are generational differences and not just age differences. There were no significant changes among post-Vatican II Catholics, except for two very mixed results. There was a slight decline in the percentage of young people who would never leave the church (which is consistent with the argument that aging increases attachment to the church). However, there also was a significant increase in the percentage of young Catholics saying that one can be a good Catholic without marrying in the church (which supports the cohort argument). There also is no change among Vatican II Catholics over time, except for an increase in the percent who feel one can be a good Catholic without marrying in the church. Finally, there is a bit more change among pre-Vatican II Catholics.

For the most part, however, these changes indicate less, not more, attachment to the church. While there is some increase in the percentage who attend Mass weekly, there also is an increase in the percent who feel one can be a good Catholic without marrying in the church and attending Mass on a regular basis, and an increase in the percent who want more democratic decision-making in parishes.

Rather than becoming more attached to the church over time (as the age argument would suggest), young Catholics continue to question the importance of the church and some of its norms as they move into their middle years. The Vatican II generation, in turn, is not adopting the pre-Vatican II generation’s commitment to the church as it ages. The pre-Vatican II generation’s views of the church are essentially unchanged as its members age.

These findings have important implications for church leaders. For one thing, church leaders should celebrate the good news that the generations tend to agree on the importance of core doctrines such as Incarnation and the Real Presence. These areas of agreement provide the glue that binds Catholics together, even when they disagree on other issues.

One important area of generational difference concerns the institutional church and its role in people’s lives. It would be a mistake for church leaders to assume that the Vatican II generation will reproduce the high levels of commitment found among pre-Vatican II Catholics. It also would be a mistake to assume that young Catholics will simply rebound as they age, get married, and have children (the age argument). Our data show that their attachment to the church is not increasing as they get older. Thus, leaders should assume that the more individualistic and voluntaristic views today’s young Catholics have developed in their formative years will persist well into their middle and later years. Instead of relying on time and lifecycle influences to lure the post-Vatican II generation into the church, leaders should explore new ways of making the church meaningful in people’s lives.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999