Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The future of "B+ Catholics."

Though I'm currently knee-deep in student papers and bluebooks, I would like to take note of a couple of related items that I came upon over the weekend. The first is this piece by John Allen who offers data and reflections on the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States and those who minister within it. Among other points, Allen notes the following:
. . . the ministers of the Catholic future will be increasingly "evangelical." The broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics today may be thoroughly secularized, but there is an inner core of faithful and practicing young Catholics who are the ones most likely to pursue a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, or to be most interested in making a career in the church as a lay person. The future leaders of Catholicism in America will come from this inner core. By now there's a considerable body of data about these "millennial Catholics," and the consistent finding is that they're more traditional in their attitudes and practices than the "Vatican II" generation they're replacing. These younger Catholics are attracted to traditional spiritual practices such as Eucharistic adoration and Marian piety; they have a generally positive attitude towards authority, especially the papacy, and they're less inclined to be critical of church teaching. I use the word "evangelical" rather than "conservative" to describe all this, in part because most experts say it's not really about the politics of left vs. right so much as generational dynamics. These young Catholics came of age in a rootless secular world, and are hungry for a clear sense of identity. More and more, the church's ministerial workforce will be stamped by this evangelical ethos.
The phenomenon of "evangelical" Catholicism leads Allen to pose a number of open-ended questions: "For example, will the rising tide of evangelical energy among young ministers fuel tribalization in the church? Will it shade off into a sort of 'ghetto Catholicism,' effectively disengaged from the broader culture? Or, will it revive important markers of Catholic identity, recharging the church's batteries to offer a distinctive contribution to the challenges of the 21st century?" Allen refrains from offering any predictions about all of this, effectively concluding that the answer to all of his questions is 'time will tell.'

The second item that I'd like to bring to your attention is an entry from the blog dotCommonweal in which Notre Dame law prof Cathy Kaveny (a former teacher of mine) takes note of the Allen article and asks, 'What about the B+ Catholics?' What, you may wonder, is a 'B+ Catholic'? Professor Kaveny explains:
There used to be room in the Church for the B+ Catholic - who went to Church on Sundays, fulfilled his or her Easter duty, but who wasn't into all that other stuff, such as retreats, Eucharistic Processions, etc. In fact, most people who went to Mass when I was growing up - the pre-Boomers and the older Boomers - were B+ Catholics. I'm either a late Boomer or an early Gen X. Most of my cohort has wandered off. They're not conservative or even 'evangelical' - but they're not interested in staying and fighting either for change, either, like the older Boomers. I expect that's the majority of the next generation too.

Will there be B+ Catholics in a church run by Millennials and ecclesiastical movements? If not, will the lack of B+ Catholics exacerbate the polarization between the "smaller, purer Church" and the rest of an increasingly secularized society?

I regret that I don't have the time to present an in-depth analysis of Allen's article and Kaveny's response, but I will offer some of my instant reactions, all highly impressionistic. Hopefully, some of what I write will inspire interested readers to leave their own comments.

First off, I must say that I often feel somewhat left out of generational analyses like those cited by Allen and Kaveny. I'm too young to fit into the range of years that most (though not all) demographers asign to Generation X, but I don't really fit into the Millennial bracket either. Simply put, I lived too much of my life in the 20th century and have been too deeply marked by it to embrace the 'Millennial' label. I have vivid memories of the Reagan presidency and of the last days of the Cold War (an intellectually precocious youngster, I even starting reading Gorbachev's Perestroika in junior high school, though I never got all the way through it). I grew up without cellphones or the Internet, and most of my high school and college research papers were written with the aid of books and articles located exclusively through card catalogues and bound periodical indexes. (In fact, the legal research class I took as a 1L at Notre Dame focused on the same paper- and print-based methods of accessing information - I wonder whether that's still true for today's law students.) In short, I am emphatically not a Millennial - I should note that this conviction has grown increasingly stronger as I've taught and gotten to know more and more current college students, many of whom started grade school around the time I started college.

Reading Kaveny's description of "B+ Catholics," I quickly realized that most of the active Catholics I've known throughout my life could be placed in this category. They may go to Sunday Mass more often than not, but they don't have time for "all that other stuff," especially if it occurs on weekdays. (On that note, I still remember how novel going to daily Mass felt to me when I started doing it at Georgetown - before that, I had been vaguely aware that some Catholics went to Mass every day, but I scarcely understood why.) The "B+ Catholics" that I've known generally don't have a fully-articulated rationale to explain why they are active Catholics. Going to Mass is simply something they do, a part of who they are. There is a real grace in this - the grace of a faith that is neither scrupulous nor particularly demonstrative but nonetheless serves as an integral and natural element of one's life.

Of course, it also bears mentioning that many of the Catholics I've known in my life have not been Catholics of the B+ variety. A good number of them have been cultural Catholics who seldom or never attend Mass but nonetheless regard their Catholic identity as something indelible; they may express open hostility toward the institutional Church or they may regard their Catholic roots with a sort of distant and rueful affection, but in a real sense all who fall into this category would affirm the truth of the maxim, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic." Even if they never darken the door of a Catholic church, members of this group have no intention of joining any other religious group - for them, Catholicism is 'the only show in town' in religious terms, even though they're not in the habit of going to Mass. At the risk of being somewhat provocative, I tend to think that cultural Catholics of the kind I've described understand what religion and spirituality are actually about in a way that members of the trendy "spiritual but not religious" crowd plainly do not.

As I reflect on my own experience of life in the Church, I can say that I've known more B+ Catholics and cultural Catholics than I have members of the group that Allen labels as "evangelical." The "evangelical" Catholics that I have known tend to be very impressive individuals; they have chosen to practice their faith in a boldly countercultural way, often at some cost. My sense in working with Millennial Catholics - including many of my current students - is that this "evangelical" group, though growing in influence and visibility, is a minority in numerical terms. A greater number of the Catholic students I've encountered at SJU would fall into the "B+" category - they go to Mass and they love the Church, but they're not into "all that other stuff." They may be seeking deeper answers to questions of faith and doctrine than the ones they received in CCD or in Catholic primary and secondary schools, but they don't seem to regard their Catholicism as something countercultural. The question of whether members of this group are more likely to be energized or repelled by the "evangelical" zeal of some of their peers is well worth asking, but I have yet to come to any firm answer.

It's also worth asking what will happen to cultural Catholics as the face of the Church changes. Some of the Millennial Catholics I've met fit into the "cultural" category as I describe it above - they don't go to church and they don't seem that interested in religious matters, but they still identify themselves as Catholic. What it means to be a cultural Catholic in the future may be very different from what it has meant in the past. I sometimes feel called upon to defend cultural Catholics against the dismissive criticism of "evangelical" peers - I think it's a better strategy to work with gentle sensitivity to try to bring inactive Catholics back to church than to write them off as lost sheep.

Notwithstanding the point just expressed, I also wonder how many generations a purely cultural Catholicism can survive. Inactive Catholics who spent at least part of their formative years before the Second Vatican Council often base their sense of Catholic identity on memories of a bygone world. One of the easiest ways to explain this is to cite a line from a recent rumination on Jewish identity offered by historian Tony Judt: "Being Jewish largely consists of remembering what it once meant to be Jewish." Something similar can be said of many cultural Catholics, for cultural Catholicism depends on the same kind of memories. I have known cultural Catholics of the Baby Boom generation whose children had no sense of a Catholic identity, cultural or otherwise. For me, it remains an open question whether cultural Catholicism can long endure once the memory of life in a pervasively Catholic culture recedes.

As I note in various ways in the above paragraphs, I have more questions regarding these topics than I presently have answers. I hope that sharing some of my questions here will lead interested readers to reflect on their own views of the matters at hand. AMDG.

The photo above shows Massgoers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, observed through a glazed window at the entrance of the church. Sadly, I can't take credit for this wonderfully evocative image - I found it here on Flickr.


At 5/06/2010 10:36 AM, Anonymous Brett McLaughlin SJ said...

Joe --

You are slightly older than me -- I have no remembrance of Reagan . . . and came to political consciousness with the first Gulf War (2nd grade). I would say that most of my Catholic peers from high school and college (Holy Cross) would be about that . . . those that focus only on Sunday Mass attendance. This is what is to be fully Catholic for many people.

In some ways, I think this is from the climate of 'Christendom' . . . similar to the one Kierkegaard remarks on. This is what Americans (and Danes) do on Sunday mornings. Society encourages this.

On the other hand, I think this climate also contributes to people bracketing their faith/Christianity to a Sunday morning ritual (of only an hour). They are already fully observant Catholics; there is no need for engagement in other areas.

As for those Catholics that do not attend Mass (but still identify as such) . . . I think any Catholic high school or college grad could feel this way. There is a strong identity there, as much as being an alumnus.

I would agree that the Evangelical group is a minority, especially in the northeast. There is a cosmopolitan (and thankfully open/diverse) nature to the Catholicism there . . . and I do not think many will get so immersed in the traditional devotions or become fervent followers of Pope Benedict.

I am particularly glad to be a Jesuit, because our ministry is focused on connecting people to discipleship . . . drawing daily upon that close relationship with Christ. I think this is what might draw those B+ Catholics into the MAGIS of doing retreats, spiritual reading, social justice work, etc. It would be a great goal to have most lay Catholics do the 19th Annotation at some point.

As usual, this is another problem I think that also comes from poor catechesis of adult Catholics. If they only had a more dynamic sense of Jesus and broader concept of the church . . . many more would be engaged.

At 5/06/2010 3:16 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I am even older than you. I am even older than the Boomers, although I do identify with them in many ways. Most of my Catholic college/grad school classmates are B+, from what I can tell.

Although I don't feel driven to go to daily Mass, I do go on retreats and attempt to have a spiritual life. I prioritize Gospel values over dogma issues. I don't like to be categorized and I have trouble looking for a niche in which to hide. Some of my older friends have ossified into a rigid, grumpy form of superficial anti-Catholicism (even though they are B+, at least) due to the sense that the progress, as they interpreted it, made in Vatican II is being taken away from them. I can definitely empathize with that, but I am less bothered with what Rome does because it means little to me.

I taught at a secular junior college in a secularized Quebec, so religion was seldom discussed. I found myself surprised to find students who did attend Sunday Mass and even attended World Youth Days. I was more pious at their age as well and planned on a religious vocation, even as far as testing the waters. It was not in the cards for me, I guess, and I have learned to accept that. There was no Catholic club on campus, no ostensible efforts at evangelizing. I guess this resembles the northeast USA situation. The connection to traditional spiritual practices may fade as they emerge from a totally Catholic environment and settle into adulthood. So may the spiritual superiority complex that can sometimes be associated with this "evangelical" mode of being Catholic.

That photo is evocative. The amber glow makes me think, as I often do, that the church should be renamed Our Lady of Mount Caramel. ;)

At 5/08/2010 1:01 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comments - I think you're absolutely right about the compartmentalization piece, which helps inculcate a secular mentality. Once we've agreed to "bracket" our faith in the way you describe, we stop asking whether that faith should have an effect on how we live outside of church.

What you say about encouraging an attitude of discipleship - more spiritual reading, retreats, service work, etc. - is critically important. Part of the challenge, though, is getting the average churchgoer to want to take the extra step. I think many are satisfied with simply going to church on Sunday and don't feel like they need to do anything more - they don't feel like they're missing anything. The trick is getting them to want to strive for the magis, and that's going to be a big challenge for us.

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of Northeastern Catholicism, basically because my personal experience as a Catholic from Massachusetts has been different. In New York or Boston it's possible to find really vibrant parishes that seem to fit the models you're talking about. Outside those cities, though, they don't seem to be present - my experience of parish life in my home area and in other parts of the Northeast outside of large metro areas is that it's hard to find parishes that are cosmopolitan or diverse or really encourage the development of an intellectually and spirtually rich Catholicism. On the contrary, it seems to me that the average parish in New England simply caters to the most reliable churchgoers (the elderly, basically) and offers little to sustain the rest of the Catholic community, which doesn't help much with the problem of retaining the young. I could say more about this, and probably will at some point.

At 5/08/2010 7:49 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comments - I have sometimes encontered a phenomenon similar to one you describe, i.e. meeting young people whom I'm surprised to learn are practicing Catholics. It seems to me that living in a secular culture can often lead us to almost subconsciously accept the secular position as a default, even if we ourselves are believers - when we meet someone, we can assume that they're not religious because that's what the society defines as 'normal.' Of course, I'm always happy to be surprised when someone I assumed was secular turns out to be a person of faith.

The question of whether young people who are drawn to a more traditional style of Catholicism will retain that attraction when they move out of "a totally Catholic environment" is a hard one to answer. Given what you say about the cegep where you taught, I wonder whether being in a secular environment actually reinforced the pull of Catholic practices for some students - that is, the fact that the larger environment did not explicitly nurture their faith may have made them want to assert it all the more (and for various reasons).

It strikes me that the "Evangelical" approach is one way that Christians react to the dilemma of secularization - as such, I think it will continue to remain strong in the future. That being said, it's not the only way to deal with that challenge. There are other approaches, and I hope that they will remain strong as well.


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