The Next Generation: A Diagnosis

"In the not too distant past, the backbone of Catholic Church life, from parishes and organizations to ordained and professed religious, was people twenty-five to forty-five years old. On most levels of the church today, the leadership is still held by that same group-not the same age group, but the same people now twenty to thirty years older."

- John C. Cusick & Katherine F. DeVries,
Chicago Young Adult Ministry Office

In 1994, three sociologists published one of the best-because one of the most rigorous-studies of generational change in American religion. Called Vanishing Boundaries (Westminster John Knox Press), the book tracked down a representative sample of baby boomers who had been confirmed as mainline Presbyterians, and it traced their consequent religious histories: Who had left and for how long? Who had returned to Presbyterian congregations? Who had gone elsewhere and why? Who believed what?

The study was set firmly in the context of the prolonged debate over the decline of mainline American Protestantism. The Presbyterian problem-and by extension the mainline Protestant problem-was not, the study showed, driving adult members out of church but failing to bring their sons and daughters in. Retention, in other words, not rejection. Church and family had simply not answered the question, why be a Presbyterian? Or even why be a Christian? On the contrary, the young Presbyterians had imbibed the notion that strong claims in support of distinctive religious beliefs and practices were irrelevant if not even intolerant. Hence the title: Vanishing Boundaries. Indeed, among those who did stay Presbyterian as well as those who did not, many had reduced their faith to a kind of generic being good to family and friends without insisting on strong convictions or obligatory practices. The authors called this stance "lay liberalism." Nancy Ammerman, another sociologist of religion, has more recently called it "Golden Rule Christianity." However labeled, the impression is that it lacks the capacity to energize congregational life, sustain social or political engagement, or pass the faith on to children.

In 1992, I wrote a report for the New York Times on the preliminary findings that later became Vanishing Boundaries. In a phone interview, I asked one of the authors, Dean R. Hoge, a Presbyterian himself but long a professor at The Catholic University of America and a prolific researcher of Catholic matters, whether he thought these discouraging findings would apply to the coming generation of Roman Catholics as well. His answer: yes. At least yes for the post-immigration Catholics whose demography approached that of Presbyterians and who shared similar values about higher education, broadening cultural experiences, and the benefits of pluralism. He was not sure about the new waves of Catholic, especially Latino, immigrants.

I pressed him. Presbyterianism is decidedly word-oriented, and the translation of religion into a general ethics comes more easily. Would Roman Catholic liturgy and sacrament provide an element of identity not so available to his Presbyterian baby boomers? Hoge did not rule out the possibility, not before someone had done the research. But he was doubtful.

Now he has done the research, this time working with three other scholars, William D. Dinges, a professor of religious studies at Catholic University, and two sociologists, Mary Johnson, S.N.D. de N., and Juan L. Gonzales Jr. The results are published in Young Adult Catholics.

To their credit, the authors have highlighted findings that confounded their expectations and took them by surprise. One turned out to be that Catholics are indeed different. Even when these young adults were at odds with the church and disconnected from parish life, the high percentage "who called themselves Catholic surprised us," the authors write. Only 10 percent of Catholic adults under forty have actually ceased to consider themselves Catholic, and no more Latinos than non-Latinos.

That was not the only surprise. Having carefully designed their research to get a more accurate reading than is usual on young Latino adults, the researchers found that, contrary to other reports, Latinos among their sample did not seem to be leaving the Catholic Church at a higher rate than the non-Latinos.

Not all of Young Adult Catholics is surprising, not all of it is good news, and some of it raises more questions than it answers. But it should not be ignored. When it comes to generalizing about young people-and who doesn’t generalize about young people, including young people themselves?-most of us fall back on our own personal history or the histories of our siblings, children, nieces, nephews, friends, or students. A book like this provides a statistical reality check. For anyone harboring a suspicion that his or her favorite anecdote may not necessarily sum up the condition of 20 million young adults, a study like this is invaluable.

The research was designed on "where-are-they-now?" lines similar to those of Vanishing Boundaries. A random sample of American Catholics who would be between ages twenty and thirty-nine as of 1997 was constructed from confirmation records in parishes chosen to be representative in terms of region, class, ethnicity, and rural, suburban, and city location. Over eight hundred of these young adults who had been confirmed years earlier were tracked down and interviewed by phone in either English or Spanish. The findings were fleshed out with focus groups, in-depth interviews, and several other national surveys.

Focusing on confirmands has the advantage of using a group that had a common starting point: some roughly similar degree of documented church involvement during adolescence. At the same time, because only about 60 to 70 percent of non-Latino youth and 30 to 40 percent of Latinos were confirmed during the 1970s and ’80s, the young adults of this study do not represent all current young adult Catholics. Both the non-Latino and Latino samples turn out to be somewhat more educated, more white-collar, and more involved in church life than the average for Catholics aged twenty to thirty-nine.

It is safe to say, then, that the study’s findings are slightly rosier than the reality. Not that they are overwhelmingly rosy to begin with. Young Adult Catholics is such a mix of good news and bad news, reassuring findings and alarming findings that the authors themselves often seem hard pressed to reach a clear judgment. Nonetheless, their final word runs more to alarm than to reassurance.

In a number of core Catholic teachings, these young adults appear largely orthodox. Over 90 percent affirmed the divinity of Jesus. At least 80 percent expressed belief in "a divine judgment after death." Given a list of beliefs and practices and asked "how essential is each...to your vision [emphasis in the original question] of what the Catholic faith is," young Catholics ranked highest the "belief that God is present in the sacraments," with 65 percent labeling it as "essential." "Belief that Christ is really present in the Eucharist" virtually tied with "helping the poor" for second place. On another question, about 90 percent "strongly agree or moderately agree" that "in Mass the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ." Sacramentalism apparently remains central to young adults’ Catholicism.

At least in principle, one wants to add. In practice, only one out of five attends church weekly, probably fewer than the percentage who scarcely ever darken the church steps. And this sample, remember, is probably more religious than other young adult Catholics. Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds don’t consider going to Mass necessary to "be a good Catholic."

It is in regard to young adults’ beliefs about the church itself that the findings are perhaps most significant and most difficult to interpret. On the one hand, there is that "kind of glue holding them closer to their church" that the authors find so striking. Three out of four of the non-Latino Catholics and four out of five of the Latinos cannot imagine themselves "being anything other than Catholic." Almost as many agree that "there is something very special about being Catholic which you can’t find in other religions."

But what is that something? Asked about the claim that the Catholic Church "is the one true church," less than half the non-Latinos and less than two-thirds of the Latinos agree. At least half these confirmed Catholics agree that "all the great religions of the world are equally true and good." Still higher percentages agree that "all the major world religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth." How should one evaluate these responses? The authors wisely keep in mind the cultural mood favoring pluralism and frowning on anything smacking of religious exclusivity. They also note that, to their surprise, about three quarters of the sample turned around and agreed with the statement, "The only absolute Truth for humankind is in the teachings of Jesus Christ."

No similar ambiguity marks young adult Catholics’ attitudes toward enlarging the roles of women and lay people in the church and facilitating wider discussion of "doctrinal issues such as divorce, remarriage, and human sexuality." They are overwhelmingly in favor of "more empowerment of laity and women," regardless of their theological views, their Mass attendance, or their involvement in parish life. Young adults were also overwhelmingly convinced that Catholics have a duty to oppose racism, close the gap between rich and poor, and preserve the environment-and again this was true across the board, indeed even more true of parish activists and the more theologically traditional than of others. However, when the sample was asked not just about the duties of Catholics but about the church itself, somewhat more than half agreed that it "should stick to religion and not be involved in economic or political issues."

Another area of near unanimity was religious education. In focus groups and interviews, virtually all respondents disparaged their own experience with religious education. Retreat experiences constituted the one really bright spot in these recollections. At the same time, virtually all young adult Catholics said that they wanted their children to receive some religious instruction. "Here is a finding of far-reaching importance to the church," say the authors. "Stated in market terms: there is a vast market for child religious education programs, and it is clearly in the Catholic community’s interest to serve this need effectively."

As for Vatican II, more than 40 percent of the non-Latinos and 70 percent of the Latinos had never heard of the council, and of those who had heard of it only about half said they had ever read about or discussed any "of its ideas."

Of considerable importance is one other finding, that half of the married non-Latino Catholics under forty married non-Catholics. (The figure was a quarter for Latinos/Latinas.) A discovery a decade ago that half the marriages of young Jews were to non-Jews set off a shock wave in the Jewish community. For Jews, as a small group within a largely Christian population, the lesson of history, at least so far, is that intermarriage means assimilation and disappearance. For Catholics, a large group whose young are for the most part marrying fellow Christians, the consequences are not so clear. Yet it seems that remarkably little thought has been given to this development from the viewpoint of Catholic identity and continuity rather than the viewpoint of easing marital and child-rearing tensions. Is this a case of being ecumenically correct?

Spiritual, not religious


Like Young Adult Catholics’s chapter on Latinos, the chapter on young adult Catholic spirituality is full of useful insights and findings, including the familiar disconnection between "spirituality" and "religion." Here, too, I wonder about their primary conclusion: "Spirituality is strong," they write. "Young adult Catholics remain overwhelmingly spiritual."

Can one reach the authors’ conclusion on the basis that a narrow majority (48 percent of the non-Latino sample and 58 percent of the Latinos) reported praying "about once a day" or more? Daily prayer, even a quick prayer at rising, retiring, or before a meal, seems a minimal measure of spirituality. The comparable rates for older Catholics or for Americans in general are 70 percent or higher.

One assumes that confrontation with sickness, sin, death, disappointment, and solitude forces religious questions on some portion of this age group, as on any other; and there is a widespread impression that America’s confrontation with terrorism has underlined these questions for a generation that till now was largely spared a national trauma. But, frankly, there is scant evidence here that, at least before September 11, spiritual searching was a major preoccupation for most of this group. 

 P.S.

The authors’ attention to Latino Catholics is praiseworthy and rewarding. Yet what is perhaps their central conclusion I find almost completely unconvincing: "In time," they write, "the surge of Latinos will change everything." Certainly everyone wants to believe that. For Latinos, it comes as a long-overdue acknowledgment of their importance. For non-Latino church leaders, it promises fresh recruits, reinforcements to fill in what seem to be the thinning ranks of the old immigrants’ descendants. But the study’s own data suggest, on the contrary, that the surge of Latinos will change relatively little.

As a member of a largely Latino parish, I am not denying the obvious: the more Latino Catholics, the more Masses in Spanish, and the more Virgenes de Guadalupe instead of Infants of Prague or Anthonys of Padua. And yes, there are distinctive and quite attractive aspects, primarily family-based, to Latino Catholicism, as there have been to every immigrant group’s religiosity. But nothing suggests that these aspects will prove any more or less resistant than non-Latino forms of Catholicism to the pressures of education, upward mobility, and secularization, or any more or less resourceful in coping with the internal problems of the American church. What this study underlines are the many striking similarities, not differences, between Latinos and non-Latinos, including the high rate of intermarriage by the third generation and the minuscule percentage of the Latino sample who chose to be interviewed in Spanish.

The authors hypothesize that assimilation will come much more slowly for Latinos than for earlier immigrant groups, a conclusion that seems to rest on one part wishful thinking by scholars protective of Latino identity and three parts unwillingness by political liberals to admit the openness of American society and economy to outsiders. My guess, however, is quite the opposite: The pace of change will accelerate; Latinos will assimilate far more rapidly than European immigrants, especially to a popular culture that is quite ready to incorporate Latino elements in its voracious wooing of new consumers.

Young Adult Catholics concludes on a sobering note. If these young adults, ten or fifteen years after their confirmation, are largely remaining Catholic, their Catholicism can look increasingly attenuated. That may not be true for the 10 percent whom the authors label "core Catholics." But much larger percentages are distanced from parish life and church institutions, have little sense of church authority, and are not sufficiently versed in the distinctive symbols, narratives, and vocabulary of Catholicism to articulate to themselves a coherent Catholic identity. Moreover, the Catholic identity they do possess appears to be less and less central in their lives. On the one hand, they breathe in a culture of religious individualism; on the other hand, they are no longer tied to the Catholic community by their most important friendships or even their spouses. Although young Catholics are different, in other words, many are not that different.

"The implications are portentous," the authors write. "If many young adults now believe that Catholicism is simply another denomination, that it ’doesn’t really matter whether you’re Catholic or not,’ that there is nothing unique or distinctive about Catholicism, or that all that really counts is a generic Christian lifestyle, Catholicism’s institutional vitality, public witness, and capacity to retain its young are in jeopardy."

There is little here that hasn’t been said before. Young Adult Catholics simply makes it harder to ignore. This is not, after all, news that most of us want to hear, and we have found a variety of ways to deflect it. Young Adult Catholics warns us against four of the more consoling ways we arm ourselves against the seriousness of the situation.

One is the belief that all’s well as long as high percentages of young adults register agreement with a few core doctrines-though they reject the ecclesiastical teachings and the sacramental and communal participation that have conveyed and sustained those doctrines. A second is that marriage and childrearing can be relied upon to bring young adults back into church life-though marriage is coming later, disconnectedness is lasting longer, increasing numbers are marrying non-Catholics and doing so outside the church.

A third is that today’s young adults are merely a new species of "communal" or "cultural" Catholic. The authors deeply appreciate Andrew Greeley’s notion of "communal Catholics" as pointing to those who remain profoundly Catholic even while becoming detached from the institutional church, but Greeley’s concept, they add, assumed an absorption of communal experience and cultural tradition. Today’s young adults are not communal Catholics, the authors write, but are the children of communal Catholics. "Their knowledge of the language and symbolism of the tradition is more limited and sparse-as is their experience of Catholicism as a tight-knit culture system." The final refuge is in the idea that what young adults may have lost in other dimensions of their faith they make up for in commitment to the poor and social justice. The church appears to have done a remarkable job in restoring awareness of that dimension of the Gospel. But the authors warn that this concern about social justice appears to float free of religious identity and be more theoretical than actual.

The ultimate point is not to justify optimism or pessimism-although it is to increase urgency. "A flashing yellow light," is the way one author has described this study. It is not a report card. It is not an indictment. It is an assessment of how much needs to be done-quickly-and where church leaders might best begin.

 What about sex?


Of course, no study can ask all the questions or analyze all
the data that one might wish. I was sorry Young Adult Catholics did not print
the full schedule of questions used for the interviews, did not separate out
those who held certain positions "moderately" and
"strongly," and did not provide more data on education and social
class. I was sorry to see how little attention was given to issues of sexuality,
perhaps not an easy topic to deal with in phone interviews but hardly a minor
issue for young adults. If the culture’s views on premarital sex, cohabitation,
and homosexuality have undergone a major shift in the last twenty-five years,
the views and maybe the behavior of young Catholics have shifted even more. From
one of the nation’s more conservative groups, they have become one of the more
permissive. The consequences of the yawning gaps between Catholic teachings and
the culture, on the one hand, and between Catholic teachings and the convictions
of many young Catholics, on the other, are alluded to in this study but not
really explored. Can the consequences be as minimal as many church leaders
appear eager (or resigned) to believe? The prevailing pastoral strategy is to
look the other way, to remember that the church probably once made too much of
sexual issues, and to wait for marriage to bring church teachings, Catholics’
beliefs, and cultural attitudes back into some kind of alignment. But that
doesn’t quite happen, either, if one is to believe the still smoldering
conflicts over birth control that turn up in this study. 

 P.S.

John C. Cusick and Katherine F. DeVries, the director and associate director of the Chicago Young Adult Ministry Office, have written a very different kind of book but one that clearly reflects the same reality-and the same urgency. The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry is what its title indicates, a manual filled with lists of dos and don’ts, examples and anecdotes. But animated by a palpable enthusiasm and respect for the young adults with whom the authors have worked, the book reasserts a sense of struggling, generous individuals easily lost in aggregated statistics like those I have summarized.

From Cusick and DeVries as well as from Young Adult Catholics, one can easily discern the importance of building on that residual sacramentalism: Sunday liturgies that are genuinely communal (for example, the music works) and meaningful (for example, the ritual has been explained and the enactment fits the meaning); preaching that is intelligent, heartfelt, and skillful; marriages and baptisms that are prepared, celebrated, and then followed up with the kind of ample pastoral attention that has characterized the R.C.I.A. Religious education for adults as well as for children (Chicago’s Theology-on-Tap program has been widely adopted), social-justice programs, and retreats have engaged young adult Catholics by effectively responding to their intellectual questions, personal generosity, and spiritual hunger.

There is much talk, some of it inaccurate or alarmist, about this or that date when Social Security or Medicare funds will run out and a whole system will tilt into crisis. The Catholic Church’s relationship with its young adults is not unlike that. Decade by decade, the funds are running lower and lower, while the countermeasures remain halting and inadequate. Of course, the bookkeeping of belief and commitment is less clear, the time of reckoning harder to predict, and the whole process more gradual. But when the time comes, no statutory change or adjustment of rates, whether modest or drastic, will be able to compensate for the deficit. It will simply be too late.

Published in the 2001-11-23 issue: 
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Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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