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Posted July 3, 2009

Sociologist, panelists discuss
how to unite varied church generations

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A leading scholar on the sociology of religion and Catholics of four different generations held a lively discussion June 26 about how to bring together those who see the church as an institution and those who see it as a collection of people who choose to join.

Both groups "value Catholic identity, affirm core Catholic beliefs and stress the importance of the sacraments," said James D. Davidson, professor emeritus of sociology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., in a talk on "How American Catholics Think About the Church."

But the two groups -- described by Eugene Kennedy in his 1988 book, "Tomorrow's Catholics, Yesterday's Church" as Culture I and Culture II Catholics -- can differ dramatically on other aspects of Catholic beliefs and practices, Davidson said.

Culture I Catholics see the clergy as the church's authority figures, place a high value on obedience and agree with the church even on peripheral beliefs, he said, while Culture II Catholics see the laity as leaders, value thinking for themselves and often disagree with church teaching on peripheral matters.

Davidson's comments came in the Msgr. Philip J. Murnion Lecture sponsored by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and held the evening of June 26 at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

He said sociological data shows "a steady movement away from Culture I toward Culture II" among younger generations of U.S. Catholics.

"These younger generations continue to identify with the faith, but they are not as attached to the church as pre-Vatican II Catholics," Davidson said. "They want to be Catholic, but they want to do it on their own terms. They look to the church for support at key times (such as weddings and baptisms), and if the church is there for them, they will support it. If not, they won't."

He divided American Catholics into four generations in relation to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65): pre-Vatican II, those born in or before 1940; Vatican II, born between 1941 and 1960; post-Vatican II, born between 1961 and 1982; and millennial, born since 1983.

"Contrary to some recent claims that today's young adults are more 'orthodox' than their parents, there is no indication . . . that the millennial generation is more Culture I-oriented than the post-Vatican II generation," Davidson said. "About one-fifth of millennials are Culture Is, but -- overall -- millennials are the most Culture II-oriented of all."

He suggested three possible responses to the shift from Culture I to Culture II Catholicism.

"The first is to define Culture I as normative and view the shift as a movement away from authentic Catholicism and toward a deviant expression of the faith," he said. "The second is to see Culture II as normative and the shift as a movement away from a distorted understanding of the church toward a more legitimate one.

"The third -- which makes the most sense to me -- is to view both culture as legitimate expressions of the faith, with one being a more appropriate emphasis than the other at certain times, in certain places and for some groups more than others," Davidson said.

To respond to Davidson's talk, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative convened a panel whose members represented each of the four generations.

Mercy Sister Amy Hoey, a lay ecclesial ministry consultant, represented the pre-Vatican II generation. Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke for the Vatican II group.

Michael Hayes, co-founder of BustedHalo.com, which describes itself as an online magazine for spiritual seekers, represented the post-Vatican II generation, and Melissa Cidade, a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, presented the millennial viewpoint.