Article: Generation gap shapes American Catholics

Here is something of slight interest.  It touches on something I wrote about before.  Give this some consideration in light of Pope Benedict’s "Marshall Plan". I’ll give it some emphases and comments. 

Generation gap shapes American Catholics
Pope Benedict XVI will see divisions during U.S. visit

updated 1:00 p.m. CT, Sat., April. 5, 2008

NEW YORK – In his visit this month to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI will find an American flock wrestling with what it means be Roman Catholic.

The younger generation considers religion important, but doesn’t equate faith with going to church. Many lay people want a greater say in how their parishes operate, yet today’s seminarians hope to restore the traditional role and authority of priests.

Catholic colleges and universities are trying to balance their religious identity with free expression, catching grief from liberals and conservatives in the process.

Immigrants are filling the pews, while whites are leaving them. Nearly one-third of U.S. adult Catholics are now Hispanic, and they worry about being considered a separate, ethnic church.

Despite these divisions, Catholics across the spectrum of belief have been energized by the pope’s trip. The man who was once responsible for enforcing adherence to Catholic doctrine isn’t likely to do much scolding. Instead, he’s expected to recognize the relative vibrance of the American church, while emphasizing core Catholic values: the reality of absolute truth, the relationship between faith and reason, love for the faith.

"I think he’s going to come in and try to inspire. As pope, he’s really taken the positive track on a lot of issues. I don’t think there’s any reason he wouldn’t continue to do so now," said Dennis Doyle, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio.

Benedict has traveled to seven other countries since he was elected in 2005, but a papal journey to the U.S. is like no other because of the church’s size and influence.

In a nation founded by Protestants, Catholics comprise nearly one-quarter of the population. Catholic America is the biggest donor to the Vatican. The U.S. also is home to more than 250 Catholic colleges and universities.

Added urgency
There’s an added urgency to this visit. While it will be Benedict’s first trip to the country as pope — he made five visits when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — it may also be his last. He turns 81 during his April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York, and he has less interest in travel than his globe-trotting predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Americans don’t know much about Benedict. But surveys conducted ahead of his visit found three-quarters of U.S. Catholics view him favorably. They are clamoring to see him.

"I get 30 to 40 requests a day to get into the speech he’s going to give at Catholic University," said the Rev. David O’Connell, president of Catholic University of America, where Benedict will address leaders of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities. "There’s a fascination with Pope Benedict, perhaps it is because there is more mystery about him."

They have less enthusiasm for religious observance.

About one-third of the more than 64 million U.S. Catholics never attend Mass, and about one-quarter attend only a few times a year, according to a 2007 study by the Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A majority never go to confession or go less than once a year.

The generational split is stark: About half of Catholics born before the 1960s say they attend Mass at least once a week, compared to only 10 percent of those born since the 1980s.

One of Benedicts’ core goals is strengthening Catholic culture to combat these trends, stressing the importance of religious life, and observing Holy Communion and other sacraments.

Beyond religious practice, young and old American parishioners hold vastly different worldviews.

Older Catholics who remember the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s are still debating its modernizing reforms. The council changed everything from the role of lay people to the direction priests face while celebrating Mass.

Renewed debate

Benedict has revived some traditions and prayers that had been largely abandoned since Vatican II, refueling the debate.

But young adult Catholics are fed up with the fight, according to James Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist of religion who studies American Catholics.

"They’ve become very impatient, and probably rightly so, with older generations, who see everything in terms of conservative-liberal, liberal-conservative, who they see as sometimes enjoying the ideological battle, even if it doesn’t get them anywhere," Davidson said. "Problems aren’t being solved, but people are yelling at one another."  [This sounds very much like what Pope Benedict is trying to get rid of.  Take a look at what I wrote here.]

The next generation of priests generally hold that same outlook.

Monsignor Thomas Nydegger, vice rector of the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University, said seminarians today are reaching back in Catholic tradition — like Benedict does — for rituals and clerical garb they find inspiring.

But they blend that interest with modern church goals: to serve parishioners and the larger community and to reach out to people of other faiths, he said.  [Okay… but I think what they are also responding to is the presentation of a new vision, one that does not stem from rupture.]

"There is a great sense of the pastoral needs of the people of our parishes — the sick, the dying, the people dealing with tragedies in their lives," Nydegger said. "They want to reach out and let them see that the church embraces them."

Unfortunately, their numbers don’t match their zeal.

The priesthood has been shrinking for decades. More than 3,200 of the 18,600 U.S. parishes don’t have resident priests. Some dioceses are now hiring recruiters to travel overseas to find clergy candidates. The number of priests from other countries is growing so steadily that Seton Hall and other seminaries have been adding English classes, hiring accent reduction tutors and developing courses explaining U.S. culture — inside and outside the church.

After ordination, the men are finding fewer resources to support their work.

Financial pressure

While U.S. Catholics donate the most to the Vatican of any country, they donate to the local church at about half the rate of Protestants, according to Chuck Zech, a Villanova University professor who studies church finances. Church buildings are aging and are badly in need of maintenance. As the Catholic population grows in the South and West, new parishes are needed.

Many dioceses still haven’t adjusted to the loss of free labor from nuns and priests, and are paying such low wages that turnover in schools and for other church work is high, Zech said. The Lay Faculty Association, a teachers’ union, recently authorized a strike at 10 New York-area Catholic schools during Benedict’s visit.

Beyond the daily expenses, dioceses have been paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in claims since the clerical sex abuse crisis erupted in 2002. Abuse-related costs for the church since 1950 have surpassed $2 billion.

One visit from Benedict won’t solve the problems of the American church. But by coming to the U.S., he can show Catholics — even briefly — what it might be like to be truly united by faith.


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  1. Ole Doc Farmer says:

    This piece seems familiar…did I read it in 1979? Or was it 1987? 1993?

  2. Michael says:

    The situation is bad. I don’t think the Church will ever be as healthy as it was on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. Sure, the situation wasn’t perfect, but it was hardly a disaster. Catholics could trust their parish priests. They knew where to go when they wanted the truth and the Sacraments. Today, people come to me wanting to convert to Catholicism, and I don’t know where to send them because their parish priest is a heretic. They want to know the teachings of the Church, where it stands on the death penalty, on baptism, on the end of marriage, and I hardly know what to say. When this is all over, we’ll find that nothing worthwhile has been gained and everything has been lost. Islam will dominate Europe and the Church will be about as societally significant as the Moonies. We can point to the great heresies of the early Church and say, “See, things were the same then, and the Church recovered.” But Athanasius and St. Dominic weren’t working in a postmodern world, where God is completely irrelevant. The Arians and Albigensians wanted the truth, they wanted to be closer to God, they just had to be convinced to choose the right path. Today, people aren’t interested in choosing any path at all.

    The Catholic Church in its confused state has nothing to attract these people. Her liturgies are ugly, her priests and bishops inconsistent and the faithful lost and confused. How can a Church in this condition convince the world she is the one and only Church of Christ, that is, if she even wanted to? If we want the Church to recover, something has to be done now and fast. It doesn’t help to constantly be in denial, arguing that the new springtime is really right around the corner, that we just have to be patient. The situation will only worsen with time. I sometimes wonder, if John XXIII had known what would happen to the Church after his death, would he ever have called a council?

    [Fr Z comments: A little too pessimistic?]

    The Sour Grapes Award


  3. G says:

    Michael, Michael, Michael,…. (I just like saying that because it reminds me of the Brady Bunch…,) where to begin?

    Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Bride, the Church, so how likely is it that the Sliding Doors of Stupidity© will be any more powerful?

    “We can point to the great heresies of the early Church and say, ‘See, things were the same then, and the Church recovered.’ But Athanasius and St. Dominic weren’t working in a postmodern world, where God is completely irrelevant.”

    Surely you mean where the blind SEE Him as irrelevant, for He never IS irrelevant.

    “Today, people come to me wanting to convert to Catholicism, and I don’t know where to send them because their parish priest is a heretic.”

    Send them here:
    and here, (read this one yourself):
    and here:

    “The Catholic Church in its confused state has nothing to attract these people.”
    A beauty in rags and mud be-spattered is still a beauty.
    She has the Body Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Savior to give all who hunger and thirst.
    She has the splendor of truth.
    “How can a Church in this condition convince the world she is the one and only Church of Christ?”
    Good question.
    You are a part of Her.
    What are you doing? Are you a priest? a catechist? a parent bringing his family up in the faith? are you preaching? providing financial support for faithful seminarians? praying for Her priests? receiving and promoting the sacraments? reading the Divine Office? helping disseminate good literature and liturgical pamphlets?
    If your preist or bishop is a heretic, how many rosaries a day, or even single Our Fathers do you say for his metanoia?

    Be not askeert! be part of the solution. Maybe none of us here is called to be a big part of it, but that shouldn’t matter. Read St Therese of Lisieux.
    Do not lose heart.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  4. William Radovich says:

    Father Z: I hate to see the sour grapes sign but the things that Michael
    has said seem to ring true. We do need workers in the vineyard
    of the caliber of Pope Benedict XVI and yourself to spend and
    consume themselves for His Church. We, members of His Body,
    have sinned and deserve to have Our Gift taken away. “He came
    unto His own, and His own received Him not.” I could imagine
    what Sts. Athanasius, Bernard, Francis, Aquinas, Xavier, etc.
    could do on world-wide, modern media. Then I am optimistic.
    Save the liturgy. Save the world! (Eamus Catuli.)

  5. Michael says:

    Yes, pessimistic, and I’ll accept the sour grapes award, but I really believe what I said. Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. He never promised they wouldn’t prevail against Christendom, or that the Church wouldn’t come very near extinction, only that it would never vanish all together. I think anyone who’s waiting for the re-conversion of the West is going to be disapointed this time round. Look at where the Church was in 1960, look at where it is now. Where will it be in 100 years? Will the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States be restored by then, or will Catholics have become a weird sect whose leaders are always being fined for “hate speech?” More than likely, I think Catholicism will keep growing as lazy parents have their one kid baptized and don’t set foot in Church again until their funeral, but that the faith will keep shrinking.

    As for my friend who inquired about conversion, there’s no papal encyclical written in the past 40 years that speaks of the Church with the same clarity and conviction someone like Pius IX did, but all of his writings have become unfashionable and obsolete. As for the Catechism, it departs from traditional Catholic teaching in enough areas that I feared he might begin to question the timelessness of the Church’s teaching. For example, look at how the Catechism treats of the death penalty, or marriage. Compare that to pretty much any Catholic document on these matters written before 1962. The number of references to VII in the Catechism and the post concilar encyclicals make it look like a super council, more important than all the other councils put together. This is a real stumbling block for someone who’s fleeing his own church because it seems to have forgotten what it stood for before the twentieth century. You don’t start with Vatican II or the Catechism of Vatican II. Too many unsolved questions that could send someone running to the Orthodox.

  6. Federico says:

    Off topic but….???Eamus Catuli???

    The best I can come up with is, in Italian, Andassimo cagnolini or in English “Let’s go the puppies” or “Let’s go of the puppy”?????

    What am I missing?

  7. Federico says:


    Those who are threatening the Church from the inside (and outside, for that matter) engage in self-destructive Malthusian practices that cannot bear fruit (pardon the pun) in the long term. There is a sufficiently large core of Catholics having 6-12 children per family to repopulate Christendom — even if some might be lost to the enemy along the way.

    Yes, it’ll take time.


  8. Anyone who thinks that the Church is in the worse shape it has ever been has no real knowledge of history. Anyone who believes that the Church was really healthier on the eve of Vatican II doesn’t have an accurate idea of the state of the Church in that period.
    To start with, remember that the bishops who covered up the sex abuse scandal were already priests before Vatican II. Many of the abusers were also already priest, or in discernment. I have no reason to believe that had Vatican II not happened that these same men would have acted differently.
    Many men and women left the Church before Vatican II. Just about every major gangster in New York and Chicago in the 1930s was a non-practicing Catholic. Many men who fought in WWII came back to an adulthood in which they no longer practiced their faith. True many of them still had their children baptized, some even married in the Church, but many did not. Divorce was already becoming more common.
    By the time V II happened many had already left the Church over disagreement on birth control. Casti Connubii was written in 1930, and by the 1960s there were already Catholics practicing contraception in violation of Catholic teaching.
    The five hymn sandwich had already replaced chant in most American parish Churches.
    This view of the Church as perfect before V II is a fantasy that has a little in common with reality.
    As for this story: This is the same old liberal media tripe based on bad statistics, sloppy reporting and media wishful thinking.
    “Young people don’t go to Church”, “Orthodox priests are out of touch with what the people in the pews believe”, “Young priests want to serve parishioners and the larger community.”

    At my parish we have many college students who attend every Sunday. The nearby parishes which minister to the respective colleges in their parishes have even more. We have young families, many which are quite large, who also attend every week. I would say that 90% attend every week. Sure we get the two times a year crowd every Christmas and Easter, but those same habits existed before V II in a segment of the Catholic population. The wife and children attending Mass while the father stayed home is a cliche of the 1950’s Church.
    If this reporter thinks that priests before V II weren’t interested in serving their parish and the larger community I would suggest he read up on the Venerable Servant of God Fr Michael J. McGivney

  9. Matt Q says:

    “One visit from Benedict won’t solve the problems of the American church. But by coming to the U.S., he can show Catholics—even briefly—what it might be like to be truly united by faith.”


    I laud the Holy Father’s efforts at all he does, but if the article suggests anything great out of this visit as opposed to the several visits of John Paul II, the writer of this article is deceiving himself.

    John Paul has come and gone from here several times and each time was just a passing fancy albeit a great event. It was wonderful each time he came here but what are the one or two major things which resulted from his visit? Yes, hard to think of one, isn’t?

    Now, unless the Holy Father is going to release the Clarifications to the Motu Proprio–which more than likely isn’t going to happen since not even a hint of it has leaked out like out everything else has, his visit will be just a merely pastoral one–which is good in and of itself, but beyond that, we’ll have to see.

    This Pope however is not John Paul, and it will be interesting to see what results from his visit. I am looking forward to this visit.

  10. Michael says:


    I’m a grad student in history, so I do know a thing or two about history of the Church. You can’t claim I’m ignorant here. When I say our current situation is worse than the Arian heresy, I know what the Arian heresy was about.

    As I already said, the pre-conciliar Church was not perfect. The Church never is. There are always problems. But I think it’s interesting that every example you give of what was wrong with the pre-VII Church is an even bigger problem today. That would make the pre-VII church healthier, among other things. Who would argue that a terminally ill patient had been no healthier when she was diagnosed a year earlier than when she was lying in bed unable to breathe? Before the Council, the problems were treatable. Today, they’re irreversible.

  11. Louis E. says:

    Eamus Catuli…he’s an Irish theologian,right?

  12. The supposition that the problems were more treatable before V II is just that, a supposition. Your theory is that if VII never happened the Church would have been immune to the general post Nixon distrust of authority that happened in the United States? In the U.S. the increase in divorce rates were more a function of no fault divorce laws, not a lessoning of adherence to Church teachings. Even when it was hard to get divorces some Catholics did.
    The same with contraception. In the 1950s it was illegal to contracept in many places in the U.S. The “pill” only became available in 1960 and was not readily available to single women until 1972.
    The pre-councilor Church was unable to prevent its availability.
    I suspect that in the pre-councilor Church that the sex abuse scandal would probably not have happened. That is the bishops would have succeeded in burying it, just as they have in the past. The abuse still would have happened. the victims would still have been horribly treated, the diocese would probably not have had to pay out, which would be a worse result to my way of thinking.
    Of course the real problem was not the Council. It was the Church’s failure to deal with the vast wave of secularization that was embracing the West. It was those (like Bugnini) who used the Council to advance their own agendas.
    But of course this has happened in the past. The Church did not deal very well with the Reformation. Popes and Curia being mostly involved with advancing their own agendas during that period was one of the main causes for the Church’s failure to deal effectively with the Protestant groups.

  13. Maureen says:

    No Visigoths at the door yet. :)

    At the end of Yeats’ play, they ask a new guy coming in if he’d seen the old woman go outside. And the newbie says, “I did not. But I saw a young woman; and she walking like a queen.”

    I suggest you check your hermeneutic glasses, my friend. My hermeneutic glasses are half full of a young woman walking like a queen. And her name is not Cathleen ni Houlihan, noble though that name be. Una Sola Apostolica Ecclesia is even older than Houlihan’s daughter. :)

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