Generations & American Catholicism
There have been some refreshingly candid (if not entirely harmonious) conversations over at Mirror of Justice recently about the blog’s mission as it approaches its fifth anniversary. Mirror of Justice is a great resource for Catholic legal scholarship, and it has a diverse set of contributors with different perspectives on Catholic legal theory.
I have thoughts about many of the issues that have come up, but one topic that I found especially interesting was the discussion of generational differences.
Specifically, one reader wrote in and suggested that younger Catholics are more interested in “evangelizing the culture,” rather than “reconsidering settled teachings,” because “our experience of being Catholic is much more a choice than a cultural experience. Since most young Catholics chose Catholicism at some point in their lives, I think we’re generally more inclined to accept the teachings of the Magisterium.” Such generalizations are inevitably over and under-inclusive. But the comment reminded me of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous, and often-misconstrued remarks, about a “smaller and purer Church.”
I think it is difficult for Catholics born after the mid-70’s (myself included) to understand the difficulties the Church experienced during that time period. Catholics had finally reached mainstream acceptance as ‘American,’ for better or worse, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Many Catholics born during this time grew up in a time in which the Church had a great deal of institutional strength and significant influence on the mainstream culture. As the Sexual Revolution played out, and the Christian (much less the Catholic) vision of sexuality had less and less traction in the culture, this influence eroded considerably. It must have been a painful experience for many of these Catholics to watch religious vocations, mass attendance, and respect for the Church fall so dramatically. As a personal example, both of my grandmothers left the Church in response to Humanae Vitae, and, while all of the children were raised Catholic, my parents are the only ones of their twelve siblings who are now Catholic (they returned later in life).
It is not surprising, if regrettable, that many who were raised Catholic during this tumultuous time period decided that the Church’s vision of sexuality needed to be revised to ensure that the Church did not become ‘irrelevant’. After all, the views of the culture had changed dramatically, why was the Church so far behind? And it is also unsurprising that there was a tendency to emphasize a form of pastoral sensitivity, desirable in itself, which can easily devolve into therapeutic relativism.
For those of us born during the late 1970’s and onward, the Catholic view of sexuality has always been a non-mainstream vision: a challenge to the prevailing mores. It can be flippantly dismissed as ‘medieval,’ but there is no denying that it is a radically different vision of the human person and sexuality than anything on offer in the mainstream culture. And it seems likely to me that there are less younger Catholics who see the Church as needing to change on this; they accept the Church’s position as a given, and either leave the Church, stay and ignore it on specific issues, or embrace it.
To try and tie this back to Mirror of Justice and Ratzinger’s remarks, the interesting thing to me is that the Church in the U.S. currently includes both the ‘smaller and purer’ Church Pope Benedict described twenty years ago and the broad and inclusive Church that many theologically liberal/progressive Catholics wanted. For instance, about 1/4 of of the U.S. self-describes as Catholic, but within that self-definition there are many mansions. In terms of self-identification, at least, the Catholic Church is a broad Church encompassing people ranging from Pat Buchanan to Andrew Sullivan. In another sense, though, the Church has shrunk, as witnessed by the decline in Mass attendance, the decrease in vocations, and widespread dissent from the Church’s moral teachings on issues like contraception. But it strikes me that there is something of a generational split here; I cannot think of any prominent younger Catholics who are as openly dissenting as, for instance, Frances Kissling, Gary Wills, or Fr. Richard McBrien. Many younger people who share their views simply stop self-describing as Catholic. And vocal younger Catholics seem to be less critical of the Magisterium, or, at least, that has been my experience.
In any case, I am curious about other people’s thoughts because the above is obviously an over-simplification. Is there a generational divide, and, if so, how would you characterize it?