Attitudes of practicing Roman Catholics have been a popular research topic for some time—since at least the late 1980s when Richard John Neuhaus, preparing to defect from Lutheranism, announced a “Catholic moment” in America. However self-serving Neuhaus’s remark might have been, it proved accurate in an odd sort of way. Else, why were sociologists down in the basement archives of big-city chanceries pouring over parish confirmation records?

More recently, President George W. Bush was said to be pinning hopes for a second term in part on a new “Catholic strategy.” The strategy targets weekly-churchgoing Catholics, a majority of whom gave Bush their votes last November.

Nowadays, such news doesn’t stir much interest among bishops, theologians, and lay church leaders. In fact, they’ve largely put aside their disagreements over the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) so they can worry together about a prospective meltdown of Catholic identity. The focus of this distress is the age group now forming new family units—the twenty- and thirty-somethings, whose job it is to transmit the faith to the next generation.

Unlike many other Christians, until now Catholics in America have had real success keeping their offspring within the church.

But Dean R. Hoge, William D. Dinges, Mary Johnson, S.N.D. de N., and Juan L. Gonzales, Jr., authors of Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice, are not sure today’s young Catholic adults will be able to sustain that performance. Instead, they see an emerging pattern that looks to them like the “blurring” identity that has weakened many old-line liberal Protestant and Anglican churches.

To me, one of the book’s most arresting facts was one reported merely in passing. It was related to the authors by veteran pastors and other Catholic experts they consulted, and who estimated that during the 1980s—when one might expect many of today’s young adult Catholics to have been confirmed—up to 40 percent of non-Latino Catholics and up to 60 percent of the Latino Catholics did not receive the sacrament.

The authors excluded unconfirmed Catholics from their polling and focus-group research, which is based on data from a sample of 800 of the remaining men and women, ages 20 to 39.

Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America, conducted a similar study of young adult Presbyterians, his own faith tradition. And while he, Dinges, Johnson, and Gonzalez see weaker ties to the church proper, they are also impressed by the staying power of Catholic culture. “Catholics have a ‘glue’ that Protestants do not have,” the authors say. “They see Catholicism as a basic part of their being. Despite beliefs and practices that are sometimes divergent, they remain ‘Catholic.’”

That goes for Latino Catholics as much as for the others, notwithstanding anecdotal accounts of their swift migration into fundamentalist and pentecostal sects. By around 30 years old, only a tenth of confirmed Catholics, Latino and non-Latino alike, no longer called themselves Catholic.

The big question is how long the Catholic glue can stick. Young adult Catholics in this study scored low on measures of religious activism such as mass attendance and daily prayer—about 10 percent were counted as “core Catholics.” But what alarmed the authors most was the identity thing. These Catholics tend to see almost everything that makes Catholicism distinctive, from papal primacy and devotion to the saints to the centrality of the sacraments, as spiritual options in “the culture of choice.” Yet without these and other identity markers, the authors warn, “there is no Catholicism.”

The story of American Catholicism is a cliffhanger. For now it is enough to say that if these twenty- and thirty-something Catholics don’t get an ecclesiastical move on it, soon the core that’s left might not be the prize it now seems.

Most young adult Catholics today . . . are not angry at the church. They are simply distanced from it. Their knowledge, understanding, and familiarity with the traditions are limited and hollow. They are less interested in the institutional church and its rules. Their affiliation is more tentative. A percentage of young adults are searching, looking for new moorings, and desiring to know more about the traditions. These persons want to negotiate their relationship with an institution that has not caught their imagination or about which they have faint or ambiguous feelings.”

Young Adult Catholics

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