Excerpt from 'Generations of Catholic Sisters'

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Editor’s note: The following excerpt is reprinted from pages 66 to 68 of New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity by Mary Johnson, S.N.D. de N., Patricia Wittberg, S.C., and Mary L. Gautier, with permission from Oxford University Press USA.  © 2014 Oxford University Press. See Mary Lou Nolan's related article about this book and its findings in Concentrations on connections will keep religious life alive


Chapter 4: Generations and Their Cultures, Challenges and possibilities

We have already noted that the youngest Catholic age cohorts are more racially and ethnically diverse. They are also better educated and more likely to postpone marriage and children (Pew Research Center 2012, 16, 20). All of these factors – marital status, family, school, etc. – influence a person’s attitudes, but one’s generation intersects with and colors them all. How have generational experiences shaped the attitudes of U.S. Catholics?

The religious landscape of the country has indeed shifted considerably for young Catholics, a large percentage of whom resemble other young adults in saying that they no longer belong to a particular religion. One recent study found that twenty-somethings today are much more likely to reject all religious affiliation than their parents and grandparents had been when they were young – 33 percent today, as compared with 12 percent in the 1970s (Putnam and Campbell 2010, 41–42). Another study found that while 20 percent of college-age millennials say they are Catholic, another 8 percent say they used to be Catholic in childhood but no longer are, “indi­cating a significant drop-off of Catholic affiliation by adulthood” (Jones, Cox, and Banchoff 2012, 7). Nevertheless, CARA analysis of the Pew Religious Landscape Survey data demonstrate that seven in ten Catholics remain affiliated with their faith as adults, a higher proportion than any other Christian faith group except Greek Orthodox (Gray 2012).

The attitudes of the 70 percent of young adults who remain Catholic, however, also present challenges to the leadership of the Church. Fewer than a quarter of U.S. Catholics in their twenties and thirties accept the Church’s teaching authority on moral issues such as divorce, contracep­tion, abortion, homosexuality, and nonmarital sex (D’Antonio et al. 2007, 98–101). Only 11 percent of millennial Catholics feel that having a celibate male clergy is important (as compared to 38 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics), and only 26 percent say that the teaching authority of the Vatican is important (as compared to 52 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics). More recent research shows that although four in ten pre-Vatican II Catholics remain highly committed to the Church, only 16 percent of post-Vatican II and millennial Catholics are this committed (D’Antonio et al. 2013, 58). Although young Catholics do pray regularly and believe in the core tenets of the faith (the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the significance of the role of Mary, the preferential option for the poor), they do not attend Mass weekly in large numbers and do not participate in parish life to a great degree (Gray 2012).

There is also a gender difference among young adult Catholics that has ominous implications for the future of the Church if it is not addressed. In the past, the women in every U.S. Christian denomination have prayed and attended religious services more often and have held more orthodox beliefs than the men But this is no longer true for the youngest generation of Catholic women. General Social Survey data from 2002-2008 indicate that, while both genders of millennial and post-Vatican II Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, “the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of U.S. Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete con­fidence in churches and religious organizations” (Wittberg 2012, 14). This greater disaffection does not occur among millennial Protestant women, who remain more devout and orthodox than Protestant males their age.

Generations and Religious Life

The disaffiliation from religion of the millennial age cohort in general – to say nothing of the even greater alienation of millennial Catholic women – makes it likely that fewer women will be interested in entering a religious institute of sisters or nuns than was the case for previous generations. This does not, however, mean that no young women are interested in a religious vocation. As chapter 1 pointed out, a recent CARA study found that more than 250,000 never-married Catholic women in the United States have “very seriously” considered becoming a religious sister at some time in their lives (Gray and Gautier 2012, 7). Millennial women who are interested in religious life today, however, may face cultural dif­ferences that make many religious institutes less attractive than they had been to older generations. Of course, absorbing members from a different culture is very difficult for any organization, for it means welcoming – and being changed by – persons whose beliefs, priorities, and values may dif­fer from those of the current members. This is one reason why so many religious institutes were ethnically homogeneous in the past. A solidly Irish, German, or Polish institute was often unwilling or unable to change the ethnic aspects of its identity sufficiently to make other groups wel­come. Attracting different generational cultures may pose an even greater challenge. Members of an older generational culture may resist making the necessary cultural changes in their institute to make it attractive to a potential millennial entrant.

Although it is possible for a religious institute to survive for centuries composed of only one ethnic group, it is not possible for it to do so if it is composed of only one generational cohort. Whether they want to or not, mem­bers of religious institutes must eventually attract members from younger age cohorts if their institute is to survive. But in order to adapt to the cul­ture of a new generation, the institute’s practices and its very identity must change, in both subtle and profound ways.