Catholic Faith: A Generational Analysis (1996)

Although there were some intra-generational variations, our focus group data indicate significant inter-generational differences in the way Catholics think about faith. Catholics who experienced their formative years prior to Vatican II view their faith primarily in institutional terms. For Catholics of this generation, the church is seen as a mediating force in their relationship with God.

Persons of this cohort indicate that a Catholic identity, participation in the sacraments, and overall commitment to the church are essential to relating with God. They see little difference between involvement with the church and relating to God because the two are deeply interconnected.

This is certainly less true for Catholics who came of age during Vatican II. Many describe their faith as being less instituionally based than those who came of age before them. Others reflect institutional notions of faith that are similar to the views of pre-Vatican II Catholics.

The post-Vatican ll generation maintains the most individualistic views of faith. Concern with whether an individual is a “good person” dominates their discussions. Most members of this age cohort place great emphasis on having a “personal relationship with God” and do not describe the church as an essential component of their faith. lf the committed young Catholics in our focus groups do not view the institutional church as an important mediating force in their relationship with God, young Catholics who are no longer attending Mass certainly do not.

These findings suggest that birth cohort is a powerful predictor of the ways in which American Catholics view their faith. These findings strengthen the similar conclusions of researchers such as McAuley and Mathieson (1986), McNamara (1992), and D’Antonio et al. (1989, l996). Although our findings show that intrzrgenerational variation exists, these variations can likely be explained by other variables such as ethnicity, gender, and family upbringing.

Our findings support the argument that differences between young and old Catholics are clue, in part, to a “cohort effect,” not just an “age effect” as argued by other researchers (e.g., Greeley 1989). In our focus groups, the youngest cohort of Catholics described religious upbringings which differ greatly from those described by pre-Vatican II and Vatican II Catholics.

Rather than detailing for us what they learned in CCD classes and in their religious education courses in Catholic schools, they told us that they learned little about what it means to be Catholic. Instead of learning church teachings, their religious education consisted of learning to be a “nice person.” Because they were taught to view faith as “having aipersonal relationship with Gnd,” and were not taught to emphasize institutional aspects of the church, it seems unlikely that today’s young Catholics will take on the views and practices of their elders as they get further into the life course.

Replicating the focus groups in Five to ten years using the same participants would certainly help determine whether those belonging to the post-Vatican II generation will embrace more institutional views of faith as they get older, or if they will continue to maintain individualistic religious sensibilities.

Source: Williams, Andrea S. & James D. Davidson (1996) Catholic Conceptions of Faith: A Generational Analysis. Sociology of Religion 57(3) pp.273-289

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