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Posted June 19, 2008

Different Wavelengths:
The Young Clergy and the Young Laity

Dean Hoge is a coauthor of American Catholics Today, which reports, among many other findings, that millennial Catholics diverge markedly from Church positions on sexual and gender issues including homosexuality as well as whether to ordain women. On that latter point, 87 percent of them favored an end to the male­only priesthood, compared with 61 percent of Vatican II Catholics, who are presumably their parents’ generation for the most part.

In his remarks at the forum, selected here, Hoge contrasted these and other views of young adult Catholics with those of the younger Catholic clergy, which is considered notably more traditional than priests who came of age around the time of Vatican II. He pointed to opinion data indicating that the millennial Catholics are moving in ideological directions nearly opposite to those of younger clergy, a trend that is likely to present further pastoral and institutional dilemmas in the future.

I want to speak about two topics. The first is about generations of priests and the other, about generations of laity. There’s been research on American priests as well as the laity. And there have been two shifts in the self­understanding of priests since Vatican II. This is important.

The first shift occurred about the time of Vatican II and it was already well underway by 1970. We call it a shift from the cultic model, the earlier model of the priest, to what was called the servant­leader model. Let me explain. The cultic model of the priest is a more traditional one which emphasizes that the priest is a man set apart. According to this model, he should emphasize his separate status; his main job is sacraments and preaching and teaching; it is not a high priorit y to work with the laity as equals or to ­ 10 ­ collaborate; and he should, if possible, have special clothes so he’s always visible that he is different. The servant­leader model was somewhat different. They emphasized continuity with the laity and working collaboratively with the laity. And they are the priests who didn’t enjoy wearing the clerics [or priestly garb]. They wanted to emphasize that they were spiritual leaders of the flock. This was quite a shift at that time. It was very visi ble in the data. And the people who bought into the servant­leader model after Vatican II hoped this would be a permanent shift, but it was not. It has shifted back again. So now, especially among younger diocesan priests, some version of the cultic model is predominant in the seminaries and also among the young diocesan priests.

Among religious priests, it’s not so clear, not nearly as extreme. Why do I bring this up? Because we have just heard that the trends among the laity are towards greater individualism, greater feeling that authority lies with the laity as well as with the hierarchy, and a greater wish for greater involvement in the Church at all levels. That’s the trend. But among the priests, the trend is different. My point is a very simple. The young people are moving in one direction; the priesthood, at least the diocesan priesthood, in another. We have to keep communications open to avoid tensions. My second main topic is about Catholic identity of young adults.

This is a topic being constantly discussed. It’s often said that young adults do not have as strong a Catholic identity as older people. And generally speaking that is true. The older people ask: Will tomorrow’s Catholics still support our beloved institutions? Universities worry about this. Bishops worry about this. Everybody who’s responsible worries about this. So the first thing to do is to get an idea of whether Catholic identity actually is weaker in young adults. And by all measures, it is. How has this occurred?

The first thing I want you to think about is how the life of young adults is different today than it was, let’s say, 50 years ago. Catholics have higher levels of education now than ever. They have been moving to the suburbs; they no longer live in Catholic enclaves; they’re marrying non­ Catholics at a very high rate, at least 45 percent, maybe 50 percent; and they have acquired new theological self­understanding after Vatican II. ­ 11 ­ They’re no longer so distinct. And the cultural supports for Catholic identity, which were in place 50 years ago, are now gone. So it’s only reasonable to realize that Catholic identity would not be as firm today as it was before. The boundary walls which surrounded the Catholic community earlier are no longer there. Young Catholics resemble young non­Catholics in most attitudes. They’re not that different. So now the question is: Why be a Catholic? What’s distinctive? What is it about us? Before getting to this question, I first want to tell you that [the lesser Catholic identity is] not because the young people are less religious, or somehow bad or somehow lacking. I don’t even think you should say: Well, the Church has failed. The society has shifted so greatly that there’s no way the old mentality can continue into the new. Today’s young adults are the most educated, the best traveled, the most individualistic, the most culturally conscious, and the most affluent in American history. I should say they’re also more demanding of what they want from the Church. We haven’t seen anything like this generation until now. Not only the Catholic Church but every institution needs to adjust to this. And I think that’s our agenda. Now there’s a lot to rejoice about. This is not a sad story. These are the most intelligent, most broadly minded young Catholics we’ve ever seen. And this university [Georgetown] is full of them. We should rejoice and we should bless them. But there are problems. Let me mention two big problems. One is in matter of sexual morals and related moral teachings of the Church. These are widely – what shall I say – dismissed. At least, they’re not seen as compelling by this generation. There’s a whole area, a whole range of areas dealing with gender, reproduction, homosexuality, marriage, and so on. This is a genuine problem area.

The second is a feeling about obligations. Older Catholics have a feeling of obligation. There are the days of obligation; going to Mass is an obligation. Young people don’t feel that way. And I don’t think anybody of my age should say to the young people: “Oh you have an obligation to do... “ They don’t want to hear that. They don’t understand that at all. They say, “Why am I obligated?” ­ 12 ­ I’ve done some research on Catholic identity to find out what is essential to being a Catholic in the minds of young adults. This is not my view. It’s their view. We’ve done several surveys. We’ve asked them: What is the most essential and central part about being Catholic. And they had a whole list of things, starting with the sacraments [number 1]; charity towards the poor [ranked as second]; devotion to Mary, Mother of God [third]; and creedal beliefs [fourth]. Which things are not central? Teachings about the death penalty, teachings about abortion, personal confession, and the rule that only celibate men can be priests [ranked in descending order from one through four]. They’re not considered central. And you should not expect young people to hold to those in the same way. We had another twist. We asked the young people: Who are the two most nspiring Catholics in all of Church history from the Bible until today? Who are people who make you feel proud and who are inspiring to you? There was a tie for first place: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Third place: St. Francis. I mention this because if we’re talking about the future of Catholic identity, these are the heroes of the faith in their eyes, and I think we have to pay attention to that. I want to make one other point. That is, the boundaries of the faith are weak right now. This is a problem area. For example, in our nationwide survey in 2003, we asked Catholics of each generation whether they agreed with statements such as: “If you believe in God, it doesn’t really matter which religion you belong to.” Overwhelming numbers of each generation, including 91 percent of young adult Catholics, agreed with that particular statement. What are the boundaries of faith? Well, the majorit y of Catholics think we should honor and tolerate and have good will with many faiths, and not say: we know the will of God and you people don’t. So therefore, what does it mean to be Catholic? I don’t have time to get into this, but this is a topic we have to research and study in the future.

In short, I hope the old people in the room don’t lecture the young people as to where they’re lacking. They’re not lacking anything. They live in a different world than you and I do. And they’re just as smart and just as committed to making their lives worthwhile as we were. But the situation is different today and we cannot expect to bring them back to what we consider the preferred way of being Catholic in yesteryear. That’s my main point tonight. And secondly, please open up communications, two­way communications. Make sure we hear the young people. I’d say, let’s start with the college students. And let them pick the topics. Let them speak and not just be lectured to. I think something should be done and we could start right here.