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Listening to the "Millennials"

A Woodstock Forum on featuring Rev. Raymond Kemp, Catherine Heinhold, Jim Davidson, Dean Hoge, Sr. Carroll Ann Kemp, and a panel of students (Feb. 6, 2007)

article by William Bole, published in Woodstock Report No. 88, June 2007

“I’m frankly interested in whether there’s going to be somebody around to bury me,” Father Raymond B. Kemp said as he introduced the topic at a Woodstock forum earlier this year. Although he was joking in a sense, the Woodstock senior fellow’s remark was close to the bottom-line concern of the evening, which was, as rephrased by Father Kemp, “Are we building a lively kind of Church, present and future?” And, although the first comment drew chuckles around the auditorium, the laughter seemed tentative and a little worried.

It was not the only comment to set off what sounded like nervous laughter during the February 6 forum titled, “Young Adult Catholics: Believing, Belonging, and Serving,” which examined, in part, the loosening ties of these Catholics to the institutional Church. Ultimately, the disquiet centered not so much on young adult Catholics themselves, the so-called “millennial generation,” but on the question of whether the Church will offer credible answers to questions and doubts raised by these Catholics born after 1979.

“Millennials are the least likely [among all generations of Catholics] to identify with the faith, and they’re the least attached to the Church,” Purdue University sociologist James A. Davidson said during the second part of the forum, which highlighted research and pastoral perspectives, following a separate discussion among Georgetown students and recent alumni. Among other examples, Davidson pointed to the relatively low likelihood of young adult Catholics affirming statements like “I can’t imagine being anything but Catholic,” or agreeing with the proposition that the teaching authority of the Church is important.

He illustrated part of his point by telling of a talk he gave a couple of years ago in Detroit, where he explained how sociologists measure religious commitment by such indicators as church attendance. At that point a young man stood up and asked, “Why would you ever use Mass attendance as a measure of religious commitment?” Davidson, feigning a heart palpation with a slap on his chest, related that others in the audience gasped when they heard this. (The audience in the Intercultural Center Auditorium laughed rather than gasped, though a bit nervously, it seemed.)

As Davidson understood him, the young man was really saying his way of practicing the Catholic faith was different from that of earlier generations, particularly pre- Vatican II Catholics, identified as those born up to 1940. “And we have to understand that difference,” the sociologist said, noting that many young Catholics place higher importance on service to the poor and social justice than they do on the conventional markers of religious identity.

Davidson’s understanding of these matters is hardly anecdotal. At the forum he presented research from the new book American Catholics Today (Rowman & Littlefield), on which he collaborated with social scientists Dean Hoge, William V. D’Antonio, and Mary L. Gautier. Hoge, a Catholic University of America sociology professor, sat next to him on the panel along with two responders, Georgetown campus minister Catherine Heinhold and Carroll Ann Kemp, a religion teacher who helps coordinate community service and retreat programs at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. (and is the sister of Father Kemp).

Much of what Hoge and Davidson related — for example, the finding that millennial Catholics see helping the poor as more central than any other aspect of the faith — seemed to echo the earlier part of the forum held in another building with a different though overlapping audience. About 150 people turned out for that earlier part, titled “Stories of Faith,” and roughly the same number attended the second part titled “How Young Adult Catholics Live Their Faith.”

“For me, above all, Catholicism is about service. It’s about responding to Jesus and the call to discipleship, about loving one another, about being Christ for people in this world,” said Georgetown senior Rob O’Rourke. Like O’Rourke, who comes from Worcester, Massachusetts, other panelists at the earlier discussion seemed to be drilling below the doctrines and religious obligations, in search of the essence or mission of Catholicism.

“I hear them asking the Church to make herself clear on the basics”– Ray Kemp

Some young-adult panelists appeared to be walking the thin line between faith and doubt, or perhaps they were simply exploring the terrain of truth unbounded by sheer certainty. Pati Notario, who graduated last year, said she’d rather not say, “Oh, I find it hard to believe that there’s a man who came down [who was] sent and supposedly divine, supposedly half man and maybe he was crucified and then he rose from the dead.” But Notario, of Bethesda, Maryland, explained that she’d also rather not say “110-percent that that definitely happened and that’s my faith.” With her, “It’s more the values behind that [doctrine]. Even if you strip the story away, there’s still forgiveness. There’s humility. There’s love. And of course, there’s that faith.”

Likewise, Notario has wrestled with the whole idea of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, and yet when she sees and at times proceeds forward with communicants who believe in this presence, this doctrine of the faith, she is inspired. “And now I find a lot of solace in just going to the chapel and being near the Eucharist,” she said.

Father Kemp, who knows many of the young people who turned out for the discussion and teaches a theology course at Georgetown on the Church and the poor, believes that the attitudes of young adults pose a fresh challenge to Catholic leadership. He said in an interview some weeks after the forum, “I hear them asking the Church to make herself clear on the basics. What do you mean when you say Jesus Christ is the son of God? What do you mean when you say the Eucharist is the body of Christ? How is it the body of Christ? How are we the body of Christ?”

Researching the Generations

How different are the “millennials” from Catholics who have come before them? In some important ways, not very different at all — according to the research gathered by Hoge, Davidson, D’Antonio, and Gautier. Aside from the millennial and pre-Vatican II Catholics, the authors also examine “Vatican II Catholics,” who correspond roughly with the baby-boom generation and were born between 1941 and 1961; and “post-Vatican II Catholics,” whom they placed in years of birth between 1961 and 1978.

“What we’re finding is that a majority of Catholics of all generations agree that some elements of the faith are more central than other elements,” Davidson pointed out. “People in all generations attach more importance to things like Incarnation, Resurrection, Real Presence, sacraments, concern for the poor, than they do to sexual reproductive issues or rules having to do with who is and who’s not eligible for the priesthood.” He added, “So in some sense there’s a hierarchy of truth in the minds of these folks and that is true across generations.”

For example, overwhelming majorities agreed that “helping the poor” is crucial to Catholicism, although millennial Catholics registered highest on this score (at 91 percent, eight points above the average response). Similar majorities placed the sacraments as well as belief in the Resurrection at the center of Catholic faith, and responses by the different generations were almost statistically identical on those scores. The study had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points and was based on a random sample of 875 Catholics, including 75 young adult Catholics, polled in 2005.

On other important questions the millennial Catholics stood strikingly apart from other generations, and this returns to Davidson’s point about identification with the Church. One data table in the book shows the extent to which different generations scored “high on Catholic identity,” an index reflecting their responses to questions like whether they could imagine being anything other than Catholic and whether “being Catholic is an important part of who I am.” One third of the pre-Vatican II Catholics registered high on this index, as did around one quarter of both the Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics, but millennial Catholics were another story: a scarce seven percent of them identified strongly with Catholicism by those measures.

Millennial Catholics were often a distinct minority on questions about commitment to the institutional Church: not one of them in the survey, for example, answered in the positive when asked if the Church is the “most important part of your life.” Only 27 percent regarded the Church’s teaching authority as important, compared with a little over half of the pre-Vatican II Catholics and 40 percent or more of the other generations. More strikingly, only seven percent viewed the Church’s pro-life position as a core teaching, in contrast to 58 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics and around 45 percent of those in each of the other generations. Millennial Catholics also diverged markedly from Church positions on other 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. (The millennial Catholics were 18 years of age or older when surveyed.)

Davidson pointed out that the sharpest contrasts, though, are usually not between millennial Catholics and others, but rather between pre-Vatican II Catholics and each of the generations that followed. In that sense, millennial Catholics have extended the trends toward fainter Catholic identity and commitment that began with the baby boomers.

At the time of the last survey taken for American Catholics Today in 2005, members of the millennial generation made up nine percent of the American Catholic population, compared with the 17 percent drawn from pre- Vatican II Catholics, the 35 percent belonging to the Vatican II generation, and the 40 percent of Catholics who come from the post-Vatican II ranks. Many observers feel that as the millennial generation grows, so will the pastoral and institutional dilemmas faced by the Church.

Noting the shakier sense of religious identity among young adult Catholics, Hoge said, “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.” Added to these worries, Hoge pointed to opinion data indicating that the younger Catholic laity is moving in ideological directions nearly opposite to those of the younger Catholic clergy, which is considered notably more traditional than priests who came of age around the time of Vatican II. And, he noted there is a small though lively minority of conservative Catholic young adults who see eye to eye with these younger priests.

Just because young adult Catholics have certain attitudes now, does that mean they will have the same basic outlook when they are no longer young adults? The question came up during the discussion period, and Davidson’s response was, in essence, yes. He allowed that millennial Catholics will adapt and change as they journey through the lifecycle, but he also explained that each generation retains its distinctive character even as its members take on new responsibilities at home, at work, and in the community. He believes the millennial generation will be no exception.

Pastoral Openings and Theological Reflection

In their responses to the research presentations, both Heinhold of Georgetown and Sister Kemp of Gonzaga touched on ways in which some young adult Catholics are shaping their Catholic identity around questions of poverty and injustice. Heinhold quoted one student, a campus retreat leader who mentioned to her on the day of the forum, “For me and a lot of my friends, practicing my faith is serving the poor.” At Gonzaga, Sister Kemp has seen her students reconnect to the faith through service outreach in the District of Columbia and other places including Camden, New Jersey, and the Red Cloud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Sister Kemp related that while on these service missions, the students spend about an hour each day gathered in a circle, reflecting on questions such as, “Where do we see the presence of God? Who did you meet today who really called to you? What do you want to remember? Give me a word. Give me a face. Give me an expression. What’s going on inside of you as we’re picking crops with the migrants” or constructing a new school building in the Dominican Republic?

Picking up on his sister’s comments, Father Kemp — highlighting Woodstock’s mission of encouraging theological reflection — noted that not all service programs pay as much attention to the importance of such reflection. “I think the priority that we give to reflecting on what’s going on, where God is, what the reality is, what’s the social critique as well as the theological critique of what’s happening — to me I think that ought to assume more and more importance,” he submitted at the forum.

Young adult Catholics do seem to have a sense of God’s presence in their lives, as Davidson and Hoge learned in part from focus groups designed as part of the research. “They feel that God is all around them, that God is caring for them and looking out for them,” Davidson said, though he added that their spiritual practices such as prayer tend to be infrequent and informal. As Aileen Tejeda of New York (class of ’07), remarked during the forum’s first part, “I’m not really into formal prayer.” Then she added without skipping a beat — “And I talk to God a lot. I talk to him like he was right there.”

Speakers at the forum offered nothing like a ten-point plan for engaging young adult Catholics more deeply in the life of the Church. They agreed that the Church needs to let young adult Catholics speak out loud and that it needs to listen. As Davidson, a Vatican II Catholic, put it during the discussion period, “If they know we love them, they can respond to the Church. If they think we [look at them as] a problem or they think we’re going to look down on them and not trust them, they’re not going to have any interest in us, and their belief will grow weaker as a result.”