Cover story -- Survey of U.S. Catholics
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 30, 2005

Generational differences


To Tom Brokaw they are the country’s “Greatest Generation.” In our study they are the church’s “most loyal generation.” Born before 1940, they not only experienced the Depression and World War II, but also the pain and anguish of religio-ethnic prejudice and discrimination. These were the first-, second- and third-generation Irish, Italian, French, German, Polish and other ethnics -- the great waves of migration between 1840 and 1925. As they came of age so also did they bring to maturity the parish, with its parochial school as the center of real communities, idealized by movies like “Going My Way.” Most of them came of age during the 20-year reign of Pope Pius XII.

They were truly Catholics of the pray, pay and obey era in the American church. In 1958, on the eve of the short but eventful reign of John XXIII, 75 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly. For most of them, to be a literate Catholic meant to know by heart the Baltimore Catechism, to attend Mass at least weekly, and to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion, usually once or twice a month. For a small but growing number of Catholics, Commonweal (marking its 80th anniversary this year) and the publications of Sheed & Ward reflected a growing Catholic interest in the public square, including politics and economics, the theater and the literary world.

When we carried out our first survey in 1987, about one in three Catholics were of the pre-Vatican II generation, almost half were Vatican II Catholics (born 1941-60), and about one in five were the youngest or post-Vatican II generation (born 1961-69). Now in our fourth survey the numbers have been reversed, with the church’s “most loyal generation” at 17 percent, while the post-Vatican II Catholics are at 49 percent, just about half of all Catholics. Even with increasing health and the longevity that goes with it, the years in which pre-Vatican II Catholics can be expected to stabilize the figures by which we measure belief, practice, attitudes and commitment are limited. So it is important to examine closely trends within the Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics. There is evidence that the post-Vatican II generation may really be seen as encompassing two subgroupings, which we will name “Gen X Catholics” and the “Millennials.” Gen X Catholics, born between 1961 and 1978, came of age in the late 20th century. The Millennials, born between 1979 and 1987, are the youngest of the adult Catholics ages 18 and older in 2005; their numbers will continue to grow as we move steadily into the 21st century. While their numbers are still small, we will see some differences from the Gen X Catholics.

Agreement across generations

Although in many areas we found significant differences among the generations, it is important to point out that there are some areas in which there is broad agreement. It is encouraging to note, for example, that more than eight in 10 Catholics affirm the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as fundamental to their belief as Catholics. Almost as many affirm the importance of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as a fundamental part of their beliefs as Catholics. Again, more than eight in 10 affirm the importance of helping the poor. All generations agreed on these core beliefs.

When it came to matters of structural change in the governance of the church, young and old alike stated that the laity has the right to participate in deciding on how parish and diocesan income is spent.

We introduced a series of questions about the changes taking place because of the growing shortage of priests. Despite their differences in age and their experience of church and parish life, there was broad agreement in their responses to the following statements:

  • It would not be at all acceptable to reduce parish Masses to fewer than once a week;
  • It would not be at all acceptable to not have a priest to administer last rites to the dying;
  • It would be acceptable to bring in priests from another country;
  • It would be acceptable to have lay parish administrators and only visiting priests;
  • It would be acceptable to have to share a priest among several parishes;
  • It would be acceptable to have Communion service instead of Mass to accommodate to the priest shortage.

In sum, American Catholics across generations affirm traditional beliefs, even as they show willingness to adapt to the priest shortage.

Disagreement across generations

Table 3 shows generational differences across time. I need to clarify that in the top part of the table, the 2005 sample distinguishes the Gen X generation (ages 27-43) from the Millennials (ages 18-26). Because the post-Vatican II Catholics who have come of age in the 21st century have significantly different responses to most items in the survey, we separate them from the post-Vatican II Catholics who had comprised that cohort in our earlier surveys. Again, it is important to acknowledge that the small sample size of the Millennial generation means that these findings must be taken with caution. We will know soon enough if these findings are a mere aberration or a sign of things to come

The first three items in the table measure one’s commitment to the church. Six out of 10 pre-Vatican II Catholics have continued to go to Mass regularly and to say the church is one of the most important parts of their lives, and 70 percent still say they would never leave the church.

Contrast that level of commitment with Vatican II Catholics (middle of the table) where we see that fewer than four in 10 are regular Mass attenders and identify the church as one of the most important parts of their lives. Still, almost 60 percent say they would never leave the church.

The situation among the youngest generation is mixed. Overall, the church remains among the most important parts of the lives of about four in 10, with an upsurge among the Gen X Catholics and a drop among the Millennials. Mass attendance continues its downward slope over time, and barely half say they would never leave the church.

The most interesting feature in the next two items about being a “good Catholic” is that there is a similar upward slope of the response patterns among all the generations. Now even the pre-Vatican II Catholics say you can be a good Catholic without getting married in the church, and 70 percent say you can be a good Catholic without going to Mass every week. At least three out of four Catholics in the other cohorts agree.

The final two items in the table deal with the locus of moral authority. We asked respondents to say where they thought the locus of moral authority should lie on a series of five issues: with church leaders, with individuals taking church teachings into account and then deciding for themselves, or with a dialogue between church leaders and the laity. We have selected two that have had the most attention in recent years. Throughout his papacy, John Paul II continued to stress that both the use of contraceptive birth control and abortion were intrinsic evils. Among pre-Vatican II Catholics in 1987, a slightly higher percent (42 percent) said that the locus of moral authority regarding abortion should rest with church leaders than said with individuals (37 percent). There has been some movement in the figures over time, with the 2005 survey showing responses essentially split three ways, with one third also supporting the idea of church leaders and laity working together on the issue.

There has been little change across time also among the Vatican II Catholics on the abortion question. A significantly larger proportion look to individuals and their consciences but the size of the gap has lessened. A similar pattern was evident among the post-Vatican II Catholics. But among the Millennials three out of four would look to individuals as the locus of authority. Here again, the Millennials are different.

The final item deals with contraception. Only among pre-Vatican II Catholics does less than a majority look to individuals alone as the locus of moral authority. Yet their support for church leaders alone has consistently hovered around 20 percent. Among Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics well over 60 percent have strongly supported the position that this is a matter for individuals to decide. Again, the Millennials are different, with more than three out of four saying that individuals and their consciences should be the proper source of moral authority in deciding on the use of contraception.

These two issues are important in a special way, because it has become a commonplace to pick out issues such as abortion and contraception and to label those Catholics who dissent from the church’s teaching to be called “cafeteria Catholics.” Our surveys covering the period 1987 to 2005 make it clear that while Catholics hold fast to such creedal beliefs as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the centrality of the sacraments in their lives, some of the markers that previous generations used to separate “good Catholics” from others (weekly Mass attendance, confession before Communion) no longer hold, our findings show that young and old are more alike than different on a number of critical areas of attitude and belief.


At a glance

The overall picture is that the generations differ on some topics but not others. On the core elements of the creed, there is broad agreement across the generations. Catholics of all ages are also in agreement on their perception of the proper role of the laity in a changing church. The growing shortage of priests and the new racial and ethnic groups replacing old have found the laity in broad and general agreement about what ought to be done to address the changing conditions of parish life. The differences across generations occur over the level of commitment to the church and on moral teachings, especially in the areas of sexuality and gender. The changing level of commitment may itself be a function of the ways church leaders have or have not responded to the events that have led to what Peter Steinfels has called “a people adrift.”

Our surveys suggest that the people are adrift in different degrees across the generations. The young and middle-aged are different from the older pre-Vatican II generation in being less committed to parish life and church involvement, and in emphasizing much more the role of individual conscience in the face of moral issues. In addition, the 2005 survey found a split in the youngest generation in that the very youngest (ages 18-26) were even less church-involved and more oriented to conscience than older young adults.

These generational differences occur not because people change as they age but because young adults enter the adult population at a different place. They are already different when pollsters first encounter them at age 18, 20 or 22. Sociologists call this pattern “cohort replacement,” which means that older people are replaced in the total population by young cohorts whose life history is necessarily different from the outgoing cohort or generation. This produces change overall even though the great majority of individuals within the cohort don’t change much during their adult lives. Figure 2 shows the pattern -- that each generation is relatively constant, yet each is distinctive. It is a common pattern encountered by researchers, most recently popularized by the books of Robert Putnam.

What does all this mean for the Catholic church? The pre-Vatican II generation is gradually leaving us, so the future is more and more with the Vatican II generation and the post-Vatican II generations (Gen X and the Millennials). We researchers will watch the growth in numbers of the Millennials for the next five or 10 years. These are the people who will constitute the Catholic laity for the first quarter of the 21st century. It will take all the wisdom church leaders can muster to communicate with tomorrow’s laity.

The following is a list of all of the tables and figures listed in our cover stories:
Table 1: Can you be a good Catholic without this?
Table 2: Attitudes on which Catholics highly committed to the church are distinctive
Table 3: Generational differences over time
Table 4: Demographic portrait of American Catholics, by political party
Table 5: Behavior and commitment of American Catholics, by party preference
Table 6: Attitudes about abortion and death penalty by generation
Table 7: Differences in attitudes about church teachings, by party preference
Table 8: Attitudes about parish life
Table 9: Would you be willing to accept in you parish ...
Table 10: Church as mediator by generation
Table 11: Acceptable parish accommodations to the priest shortage
Table 12: Possible responses to the priest shortage
Table 13: 'Cannot explain faith to others'
Table 14: Did you ever attend a Catholic school or college for any of your education?
Table 15: Catholic high school or college attendees have more education, income
Table 16: Catholic high school and attachment to the church
Table 17: Catholic high school and attitudes about parish life
Table 18: Appropriate role for parishioners with respect to parish finances
Figure 1: How important to you?
Figure 2: Attend Mass weekly or more
Figure 3: Changing behaviors and attitudes about attending Mass
Figure 4: Catholic laity should have the right to participate in deciding how parish income should be spent
Figure 5: Parishioners' role in parish finances should be ...

National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: