From Latin Mass to 9/11: Survey Reveals Generational Shifts, with Changes on the Horizon as Pre-Vatican II Catholics Fade and Millennial Come into Their Own

Article excerpt

A growing body of literature in sociology has shown that experiences during individuals' formative years, especially traumatic events such as wars, the Great Depression, tsunamis and other disasters, produce cultural and structural patterns within the particular period that set apart those who have lived through them from other generations. We applied this idea to Roman Catholics in the United States, because there are important historical events that demarcate distinct Catholic generations, with the Second Vatican Council as the major divide in the recent history of the church. It made sense to distinguish among three distinctive generations of Catholics: pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics. The differences we found from our surveys of 1987 and 1993 led us to expect that the generations would continue to have different beliefs, practices and attitudes toward the church throughout their lives, even when they were at the same age or stage in life as the generations immediately before and after them. Our five surveys over 25 years enable us to test that expectation.

Pre-Vatican II Catholics, that is, Catholics born in 1940 or earlier, came of age in a church where Mass was said in Latin, the priest with his back to the people. The axiom was that you either went to Mass on Sunday or you were surely going to hell. Most Catholics chose Mass, and weekly Mass attendance rates reached as high as 75 percent in 1958. These Catholics were also the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other European countries, essentially the white ethnic wave that came to the United States between 1840 and 1925. Thus, at the time of our first survey in 1987, they constituted about one in three of all Catholic adults (31 percent); they ranged in age from 47 to 90-plus.

Vatican II Catholics were born between 1941 and 1960; in 1987 they constituted nearly half (47 percent) of all Catholics. Vatican II Catholics had one foot in the old Latin Mass church and the other foot in the new English-language Mass church, with the priest now facing the people. These were the Catholics most clearly influenced by the changes brought on by the documents and the spirit of Vatican II. Events showed them to be the most active in moving away from being just "pray, pay and obey" Catholics. They became "the people of God," with emphasis on the community of believers rather than the pre-Vatican II emphasis on priests and religious as somehow closer to God by virtue of their status in the church. They overlapped with the so-called baby boom generation, and witnessed the election and assassination of President John Kennedy; the Vietnam War and its divisive aftermath; and Watergate. The documents and spirit of Vatican II left the oldest among them unprepared for the reaffirmation of the church's official condemnation of artificial contraception in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Post-Vatican II Catholics were only 22 percent of the adult Catholic population in 1987. They became known popularly as the Gen-X Americans. They would continue to grow in numbers through the next two surveys, their generation finally spanning the period 1961-78. For them the Mass in English was all they knew, and the documents of Vatican II were seen and interpreted through the charisma of Pope John Paul II. Polls showed that they were fond of John Paul and turned out in record numbers for his youth rallies, while becoming increasingly influenced in personal beliefs, attitudes and behavior by the ethos of individualism and self-actualization that gained in cultural dominance in the 1970s, culminating with the disillusionment over the Vietnam War, Watergate, the student and women's movements, and even the civil rights movement.

Even as they cheered John Paul II, they tended to ignore his pleas for sexual abstinence, natural family planning, or going to Mass and confession on a regular basis, as evidenced by their responses to our surveys. …