The 2011 Munrion Lecture by Sister Patricia Wittberg, SC, author and professor of Sociology at Indiana/Purdue University is both an excellent introduction to the sociological idea of “generational” cultures and an interesting perspective on the Gen-X & Millennial “Catholic debacle” (to use the term of Mark Silk). Most importantly, she suggests parish intergenerational workshops and dialogs as a means for moving forward positively. The bottom line: we should take generational cultures as seriously as ethnic cultures.
The reviewer’s commentary is in italics.
Generational Cultures: Key Formative Factors (according to Karl Mannheim)
1. Our childhood environment until around age 18 is absorbed passively like a sponge without much critical thinking. For myself, this environment was pre-Vatican II, i.e. Latin Mass, Cold War, two-parent family, etc.
2. Around age 18 we begin to form critical opinions about the world around us in a big way. Once these are formed, they become lenses for how we process the world for the rest of our lives. For myself, this critical processing included Vatican II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War.
Generations form because we are very influenced by the opinions of our close peers rather than other generations. For myself, almost all my close peers were for Vatican II and civil rights, and against the war.
Discussion Question: Notice that it is very possible to absorb something passively (e.g. I liked Latin and Gregorian Chant) yet easily decide to do something very different when processing begins (e.g. the Mass would be better for everyone if it were in English). According to Mark Silk, Gen-X was loaded with Catholic identity when they started their processing. That identity would have been passively absorbed prior to 1990. However they could easily have affirmed that passive identity while beginning to do things very differently, e.g. not attending Mass. That would ultimately show up in their lack of Catholic identity in 2008. Do we put too much emphasis on loading people with religious knowledge in their youth? Do we abandon people when they begin to critically process their lives in their 20s?
|Birth date range||Title||18th birthday range||28th birthday range|
For reference, I have given usual birth date range and title of each generation. However I have added its 18th birthday range in parenthesis, and its 28th birthday range in brackets. What happened and was discussed among our peers between our 18th birthday and our 28th birthday is key along with what we absorbed passively before our 18th birthday.
After our 28th birthday, I suspect thinking comes to be formed more by marriage, children and professional practice than by our age peers. Even though my professional identity as a social scientist was being formed passively from age 18 through age 28, its active formation took place in earnest when I began to teach and do research on my own, first in academia, then in the public mental health system. So we may acquire our professional culture in a similar passive then active pattern, only about a decade later than our religious culture.
Gen-X and Millennials: the Future of the Church
Wittberg describes both generations as image-oriented and non-discursive, media savvy, desirous of community and belonging, egalitarian and tolerant, and postmodern (reluctant to say something is true for everyone).
She says Millenials tend to be less critical of parents and institutions, more team-oriented, conventional, more sheltered by parents (half talk to parents every day), more confident and hopeful (at least prior to the Great Recession). However they tend to be even more materialistic than Gen-X. Seventy five percent in 2005 said it was essential or very important for them to be rich as compared to 62% of Gen-X freshman in 1980, and 42% of Baby Boomer freshmen in 1966.
The Gen-X & Millennial Catholic “Debacle”
N.B. She did not use Silk’s word, but I think it is an apt description of this summary.
Wittberg describes Millennials and Gen-X as unschooled in Catholicism. A third never attend Mass, another third attend only a few times a year. Over 50% of Catholic Millennials say they are not religious.
Of all Christian denominations in the United States, Catholic youth are the least likely to attend religious services once a week or more, say their faith is very or somewhat important, say they believe in God, or pray once a day or more. Catholics young adults are most likely to never attend religious services, say they never pray, and say they don’t believe in God.
Fewer than on third of Catholic young adults think of themselves as practicing Catholics, or say that the sacraments are essential. Two thirds say missing Mass is OK.
An even more ominous finding in some surveys is that this alienation is stronger among Catholic young adult women than among their male counterparts. This is highly unusual. In the past, Catholic women have always been more orthodox in their beliefs and more observant in their devotions and Mass attendance than Catholic men were. At least since the 1990s however this proportion has been reversed. While both genders…are far less devout than their elders, the women are even more alienated than the men are. If the Church loses Millennial and Gen-X women, it will lose their children as well.
For the most part, however Millennials are not -yet- anti-religious. Instead their primary attitude toward religion is a sort of benign neglect…
…I believe that Catholic Millennials are at a crossroads as far as their affiliation with the church is concerned. I believe that many are deeply alienated by the polarization between warring factions who are still fighting the battles of 50+ years ago….
…a small minority has reacted to the egalitarianism, post-modernism, and tolerance of their generation by aggressively promoting the exact opposite.. there is only one way to be a real Catholic, …the seminarians among them say the priesthood is a special and holier state, ..there is only one truth. The problem, of course, is that it is primarily this 6% that is showing up in our seminaries and religious orders.
This has potentially, two extremely negative effects:
1) having unusually conservative clergy may alienate from the Church the majority of Catholics of all generations who are not becoming more conservative.
2) many young men and women who think they have vocations may ignore God’s call because they don’t think they will fit in.”
Suggestions for Parish Intergenerational Dialogs
Wittberg’s talk has a number of suggested exercises for parish intergenerational dialogs. However the taped and written lecture formats belong to the older generations. I would suggest recruiting media savvy Gen-X and Millennials to produce a multi-media workshop that features music, photographs, etc. from the different generations.
The Mannheim paradigm which contrasts a period of passive absorption of a culture with a period of active creation of culture could be applied to marriage and professional life as well as religion. Different generations have entered marriage and professional life as well as adult religious life with vastly different passive preparatory as well as active experiences. I suggest taking a broad view of intergenerational dialog and having a range of facilitators, e.g. marriage counselors, vocational counselors, etc. This might attract many people to ongoing discussions and make them less of a one time event.
Jack Rakosky, a Pray Tell reader, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.