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Transcript: “How American Catholics Think About The Church”

by James D. Davidson
as prepared

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pryzbyla University Center
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.


In the last 50 to 60 years, the Catholic Church has experienced more changes thanany church I know. In my various attempts to describe these changes, I keep coming back to Eugene Kennedy’s 1988 book Tomorrow’s Catholics, Yesterday’s Church and his distinction between Culture I Catholicism and Culture II Catholicism (see Figure 1). Kennedy said the two cultures are similar in some respects, especially on issues related to the Catholic faith. Both value Catholic identity, affirm core Catholic beliefs, and stress the importance of the sacraments. But, he said, they are different in many other ways, mostly having to do with the Church. Culture I Catholicism views the Church as an institution, with membership being ascribed, and commitment being unconditional. It emphasizes the authority of the clergy, who are seen as the key leaders. Value is placed on obedience to authority, so leaders have a high degree of control over the members. As a result, there are high levels of social solidarity, religious practice, and agreement with all beliefs (even those which many members consider peripheral). The normal state within the Church is stability and order. On the other hand, there is considerable tension between the Church and the world, which the Church sees as hostile to the Catholic faith.

Culture II Catholicism views the Church as the people who choose to belong to it. Their commitment depends on whether or not the Church meets their social and spiritual needs. Culture II stresses the leadership of all the people (laity as well as clergy) and emphasizes people’s need to follow their own consciences, even if their decisions differ from official church teachings. With this emphasis on thinking for one’s self, leaders have relatively little control over the members. As a result, there are low levels of social solidarity, religious participation, and agreement on church teachings that members consider peripheral. The Church is constantly changing. Culture II Catholicism tends to affirm modern society.

Kennedy’s analysis and Figure 1 portray the cultures as mutually exclusive “ideal types.” In reality, they are opposite ends of a continuum that has many points at which the two cultures intersect (Pogorelc and Davidson 2000). Thus, rather than viewing them in “either-or” terms, we should use a “both-and” approach, realizing that there are elements of both cultures in most Catholics. It’s just that people put one culture in the foreground and the other culture in the background when they think about the Church.

Kennedy did not assume that all of the people who gravitate toward Culture I are “conservative” or that all Culture IIs are “liberal.” There are tendencies in these directions, but some Culture Is are liberal, and some Culture IIs are conservative. Some Culture Is read Our Sunday Visitor and belong to Opus Dei; others read the National Catholic Reporter and belong to Call to Action. Culture IIs don’t read either paper or belong to either organization. Their Catholicism is more spiritual than religious. It is tied to their own sense of right and wrong more than it is to religious publications and organizations.

Kennedy sensed that American Catholics were moving away from Culture I Catholicism toward Culture II Catholicism, and used some of our data from the 1980s to make his case. Several more surveys have been done since then, and they provide even more evidence that Kennedy was right.

In the early- to mid-1900s, the vast majority of American Catholics embraced the tenets and traditions of Culture I (see Figure 2). There certainly were some people who were Culture II-oriented, but they were a distinct minority (Gillis 1999; Davidson, Schlangen, and D’Antonio 1969; Lenski 1963; Fichter 1951).

Catholics continue to affirm the faith- related elements that are common to the two cultures.

However, as Kennedy suggested, on the church-related elements that distinguish the two cultures, Catholics are still moving away from Culture I toward Culture II. For example, since the 1940s, Catholics have gone:From teaching their children to obey to teaching them to think for themselves (Davidson 2007, 2005)

In short, identification with the faith, belief in core elements of the Catholic faith, and the salience of sacraments have not changed much, but Catholics’ understanding of the Church has changed quite dramatically. The change has been a steady movement away from Culture I toward Culture II.

A Generational Explanation

This trend is largely driven by the fact that an older cohort of Culture I Catholics is being replaced by younger cohorts of Culture II Catholics (Davidson 2007; Davidson et al 1997; Williams and Davidson 1996). This explanation boils down to four propositions:

1. There are four generations of American Catholics (see Figure 3).

Pre-Vatican II: born in or before 1940 (17 percent of Catholics in 2005)
Vatican II: born between 1941 and 1960 (35 percent in 2005)
Post-Vatican II: born between 1961 and 1982 (40 percent in 2005)
Millennial: born since 1983 (9 percent in 2005)

2. Members of these generations have had very different experiences during their formative years (i.e., their teenage and young adult years).

Pre-Vatican II Catholics came of age when Catholics were low in socio-economic status and experienced religious prejudice and discrimination. They grew up in the midst of the depression of the 1930s and World War II—when there was a great emphasis on protecting American institutions and respecting institutional leaders. They also grew up at a time when church leaders emphasized Culture I Catholicism and had considerable impact on Catholics’ beliefs and practices.

By the time Vatican II Catholics came along, Catholics had climbed into the lower-middle class and were gaining acceptance in society. As these changes were occurring, Catholics experienced the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That revolution

challenged the validity of all social institutions (including the Church) and encouraged people to rely on their own instincts when deciding how to think and act. In the Church, Catholics experienced Vatican II. The Council modernized the Church, both internally and in terms of relationship to world around it. Its actions contributed to the rise of Culture II Catholicism.

Post-Vatican II Catholics have roots in the upper-middle class and are fully integrated into society. In their formative years, they experienced many institutional breakdowns, record levels of divorce, and the premature deaths of many pop culture icons. These events reinforced young people’s doubts about social institutions and increased their sense of self-reliance. Church leaders tried to reassert Culture I Catholicism and disciplined people who did not concur.

Millennial Catholics also are products of prosperity and social assimilation. Their formative years have included 9/11 and the greatest economic meltdown since the depression. They have learned to be cynical about institutions and to rely on their own instincts. Meanwhile, church leaders are attempting to reassert Culture I Catholicism.

The members of each generation differ in terms of race, ethnicity, class, and gender, so they experience these conditions and events in somewhat different ways. As a result, there are always intra-generational differences in Catholics’ formative experiences. But, these internal differences are situated in the larger context of experiences that distinguish each generation from the ones before it and after it.

3. These experiences have had long-lasting effects on the way members of each generation think about the Church.

The experiences Catholics have during their formative years shape the way they think about life and the Church forever. Of course, people change as they pass through the various stages of life (Dillon and Wink 2007). However, even the way they respond to these stages is affected by their formative experiences (Hoge et al. 2001; Walrath 1987). Without denying the importance of changes that result from age and life cycle, my generational perspective emphasizes the continuity that results from people’s formative years.

When I average the results from several recent studies, I find both intra- and inter-generational differences in the way Catholics think about the Church (see Figure 4).

Figures 5 and 6 are based on the 2005 survey reported in our book American Catholics Today (D’Antonio et al. 2007). Figure 5 shows that pre-Vatican II Catholics are most Culture I-oriented. They are more likely than members of the other generations to say that the Church is an important part of their lives (58 percent), that they would never leave the Church (69 percent), and that they attend Mass every week (60 percent). Millennials score the lowest on these items.

Figure 6 shows that millennials are the most Culture II-oriented. More than any other generation, they say that one can be a good Catholic without agreeing with the Church’s teachings on abortion (98 percent), without marrying in the Church (87 percent), and without donating time or money to a parish (71 percent). The percentages for the post-Vatican II and Vatican II generations are smaller, followed by a larger drop off between the Vatican II and pre-Vatican II generations.

Thus, pre-Vatican II Catholics were raised to believe the Church is an end in itself, and, for the most part, they still do. They also were raised to believe that to be good Catholics, they had a duty to participate in the sacraments, support the Church, and comply with its teachings. To this day, they rank highest in religious practice, financial contributions, and doctrinal orthodoxy (D’Antonio et al 2007; Davidson 2007, 2005; Davidson et al 1997).

There is a big difference between the pre-Vatican II generation and the Vatican II generation. The differences between the Vatican II, post-Vatican II, and millennial generations are smaller. These younger generations continue to identify with the faith, but they are not as attached to the Church as pre-Vatican II Catholics. 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 (Pew Forum 2009, Fischer and Hout 2006; Hoge et al 2001).

Contrary to some recent claims that today’s young adults are more “orthodox” than their parents (e.g., Portier 2004; Carroll 2002), there is no indication in these data that the millennial generation is more Culture I-oriented than the post-Vatican II generation. About one-fifth of millennials are Culture Is, but—overall—millennials are the most Culture II-oriented of all.

4. As the pre-Vatican II generation shrinks in size and is replaced by the post-Vatican II, Vatican II, and millennial generations, the cultural orientation of American Catholics is shifting from Culture I to Culture II.

As Catholics moved from the bottom to near the top of America’s social hierarchy and from the margins to the middle of American culture in the middle of the 20th century, they experienced Vatican II and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. This combination of circumstances produced a major shift in the way Catholics think about the Church, away from Culture I toward Culture II. Post-Vatican II and millennial Catholics are extensions of—not radical departures from—the shift that took place between the pre-Vatican II and Vatican II generations. There is no indication in these data of a return to Culture I. Until some unforeseen event alters these patterns, it is reasonable to assume that the trend toward Culture II will continue.


These findings lead to at least four important questions for the panelists.

How should we view the overall shift from Culture I to Culture II Catholicism?

As I see it, there are three options. 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 (c.f., Carlin 2003; Carroll 2002; Varacalli 2000). 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 (Lakeland 2007; Dolan 2002; Kennedy 1988). The third—which makes the most sense to me—is to view both cultures 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. For example, Culture I seems like an appropriate response when Catholics are low in status and marginalized, as they were in this country in the first half of the 20th century. Culture II seems more appropriate when Catholics are more educated and fully integrated into society, as they are in America these days. If so, the shift can be viewed as a movement from one culture that made sense under the circumstances at that time, to another culture that seems to fit a new set of circumstances. How do you view the shift?

In what specific ways are the trends and generational differences positive, and what more can be done to foster these outcomes?

I am encouraged by the fact that Catholics are increasingly willing to (a) distinguish between core church teachings and teachings that are not as central to the faith; (b) accept the core elements of the faith, even as they disagree with other church teachings; (c) believe that laypeople should be involved in parish and diocesan decisions; and (d) respect other religious traditions (Davidson and Hoge 2004). These are taken-for-granted assumptions among post-Vatican II and millennial Catholics. We should take every opportunity to celebrate these trends and today’s young adults at parish and diocesan gatherings. Do you agree? What else is on your list of positive developments and ways to affirm these outcomes?

In what specific ways do these trends and inter-generational differences present challenges, and what can be done to solve those problems?

Let me mention two concerns. First, although I see both cultures as legitimate responses to different circumstances, both contain risks. Just as Culture I includes the risk of excessive institutionalism and clericalism, Culture II runs the risk of excessive personalism and individual autonomy. Just as Culture I can lead to such an exaggerated emphasis on obligation and obedience that there is little or no room for individual agency, Culture II can lead to such an exaggerated emphasis on individualism and freedom that there is little or no room for institutional accountability. I don’t believe we can, or should, return to the extra-ordinarily high levels of conformity that we witnessed in the 1940s and ‘50s. But, I also don’t believe that we should ignore the fact that many of today’s young adults have a spirituality that includes almost no connection to the larger Catholic community.

We could address this issue in at least two ways. One way is to draw upon Catholics’ identification with the faith and ask people to locate the ways in which that faith is expressed in and perpetuated by the Church. Another way is to name the characteristics Catholics would look for in an ideal church, then work with them to find parishes that have those traits, or give them opportunities to create cells within parishes that would have them. Both of these solutions require that we listen to, trust, affirm, and empower Catholics to link their Church to their faith.

My other concern is the tendency for each generation to use its own experiences as criteria when judging the beliefs and behaviors of other generations. Thus, pre-Vatican II Catholics are often critical of younger generations for not abiding by church rules and regulations, and millennials, post-Vatican II Catholics, and Vatican II Catholics often criticize pre-Vatican II Catholics for not taking personal responsibility for their own faith journey. These perceptions and prejudices can lead to a lack of charity and social solidarity in the Church. To address this problem, we need to give people opportunities to experience what it is like to belong to other generations and to understand why they think and act the way they do.

What concerns do you have, and how should they be addressed? Finally, what should we do, if anything, to address the growing gap between Culture I priests and Culture II laypeople?

In the pre-Vatican II era, a majority of both priests and laypeople were Culture Is. Both parties were attracted to some elements of Culture II in the 1960s and ‘70s. Since then, they have gone in quite different directions. More and more priests—including young ones—are Culture Is, while—as I’ve shown—more and more laypeople are Culture IIs. Thus, there is a growing cultural gap between clergy and laity in general and between younger priests and younger laypeople in particular (Davidson and Hoge 2007).

This gap inevitably leads to differing expectations and communication problems.

These problems only get worse when (a) Culture I clergy assume that the Culture II orientation of today’s laity is not a legitimate expression of the faith and try to convert laypeople to Culture I, and (b) laypeople assume that the Culture I orientation of today’s clergy is not legitimate and try to convert priests to Culture II. These assumptions deny the integrity of the other party and are likely to spark resistance. Under these conditions, frustration and attrition are likely to increase among priests, and alienation and defections are likely to increase among laypeople. Let’s not go there.

The better course of action is to assume (a) that it is quite natural for clergy to emphasize Culture I, and (b) that Culture II is an appropriate expression of faith among today’s laypeople. These conditions will not eliminate all conflicting expectations and communication problems, but they will help priests and laypeople discover the common ground they stand on, and they will foster mutual respect and civility on issues where they differ. What’s not to like about that?

I welcome your responses and look forward to our discussion.


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