Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Catholicism: The Next Generation?

This post is co-authored by Hannah Hagan, our 2017 summer research intern. She comes to CARA from Vanderbilt University and is a math major (Class of 2019).

When I came to CARA in 2002, the research center was already studying the youngest Catholic generation, the Millennials (born 1982-2004). The oldest in this cohort were just 20 years old at the time. Now they are 36. It’s 2017… time to start thinking about the next generation of Catholics who are younger than the Millennials.

CARA typically gives the secular generation a Catholic name representative of things happening in the Church as the cohort comes of age. We do so because generational differences are often among the largest and most significant sub-group findings from our national surveys. We’ve typically included the following in our reports to describe generations:

For purpose of analysis, CARA categorizes Catholic survey respondents into four generations based on life experiences especially relevant to Catholics:    
  • The “Pre-Vatican II Generation,” was born in 1942 or earlier. Its members came of age before the Second Vatican Council. 
  • The “Vatican II Generation,” are the “baby boomers” who were born between 1943 and 1960, a time of great demographic and economic growth. They came of age during the time of the Second Vatican Council and their formative years likely spanned that time of profound changes in the Church. 
  • The “Post-Vatican II Generation,” sometimes called “Generation X” or “baby busters” by demographers, has no lived experience of the pre-Vatican II Church.
  • The “Millennial Generation,” born in 1982 or later (up to 1994 among adults), have come of age primarily under the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Some still live with their parents and their religious practice can closely follow that of their families of origin.

CARA has already conducted a few studies of Catholic youth and teens that have collected data on the youngest, yet unnamed, generation. They will begin to enter adulthood in 2023 and appear in our national polls at that time. Of course, they are already an important cohort in our research as they are part of the Catholic school children of today and we see them in our sacramental practice data for baptisms (13.7 million infant baptisms already from 2005-2015) and First Communions. The oldest of this generation are age 12 today and some will live to see the Church enter the 22nd century.

So what should we call Catholics of this generation? In the secular research world they have been referred to as… Homelanders, Generation Z, Boomlets, Digital Natives, and iGen. The simplest choice is just to follow Gen X with Gen Y and go with Gen Z (…and worry about what letter comes next with the generation that follows). Naming generations alphabetically seems to be an odd choice (...bit lazy as well) and limits the relevance of the name to any substantive aspect of the generation.

Should the name embrace the digital revolution? Of course this generation will have no lived experiences without iPhones, tablets, social media/networks, Fitbits, etc. They will never learn cursive handwriting and struggle to develop a signature. “And also with your spirit” will always just roll off their tongues in a natural way.

Should the name be related to international events? This is the generation with no lived experience or memory of 9/11 and the immediate aftermath. Yet, their whole life has existed in the new realities of global terrorism and reactions to this. I’m not a big fan of “recycling” the Boomers and calling them the Boomlets because their early birth years exceed the numbers of the Baby Boom. There are no similarities here as the un-named generation was and will continue to be born during record low fertility rates. 

CARA has discussed whether “Generation Francis” would be an appropriate name. The oldest members of the cohort were eight years old when his papacy began. Pope Francis is 80 now. The unnamed generation is likely to include births as late as 2025. Pope Francis would be 89 at that point and those born in that year wouldn’t likely have personal memories of the pontiff.

Is Generation Francis a bit presumptuous? Maybe not. Name the last (or next) pope that is going to be Time’s Person of the Year, appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, and be named by Fortune as one of the world’s greatest leaders? Or how about name the last pope from the Americas? The last Jesuit pope? He’s created more than 60 cardinals and this will likely have a lasting impact for some time beyond his papacy.

Perhaps the only other defining religious narrative for this generation, so far, is that they will likely come of age in an era of growing secularization. Yet, pinning this on them as a Catholic generation would seem odd as this would include only those who self-identify as Catholic. It is the case that we see a decline in sacramental practice and a slow shift from weekly to monthly Mass attendance norms among younger adult Catholics. This unnamed generation may be much less attached to a parish and its community life than members of the other existing U.S. Catholic generations.

This disconnect, is in part, a reflection of the growing digital nature of their lives. They won’t recall a time when it wasn’t possible to order groceries from home, watch movies on demand (on their phones…), shop for clothes online, or keep in touch with friends and family on an hourly basis on their social networks. They may be the first generation to think of the Bible as an app rather than a thick book. Yet, Catholicism takes place in sacred (real) spaces—in the brick and mortar of parishes. You can’t email your confession or have Communion delivered by a drone. In this regard the “digital” names for this generation in the secular world may not fit in the Catholic world.

What do you think? We need your help. Researchers will be writing about this generation in CARA reports in 2100 so you could leave a lasting impression. Join us on Twitter (@caracatholic) to let us know your ideas.

Photo courtesy of Balazs Koren

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