The first is made up of those who attend Mass weekly and think their faith is very important in their lives. They consistently express greater support for the current teaching and ministry of the Church. With one exception: the question of whether nuns are in touch with the needs of Catholics today. Those who attend Mass weekly were less likely to think so than those who attend monthly. The difference isn’t dramatic, but it’s telling.
Most female orders are off the rails and represent the most extreme forms of liberal Catholicism. Regular Mass-goers know that, and they aren’t as sympathetic as those who attend somewhat less frequently. Perhaps the less frequent Mass attending Catholics are more sympathetic with theological liberalism, which explains their more positive view of nuns. Their answers to other questions suggest that’s the case.
The second cohort is made up of baby boomers (45-64 years old). That’s my generation. We’re the cohort most in favor of married priests and women priests. We’re the least likely to believe the pope is infallible and least willing to let employers opt out of the contraceptive mandate for reasons of religious conscience.
To my mind it’s the dissenting impulse of the baby boomers that’s been the ongoing story in American Catholicism, as it has been in American culture. Young people today aren’t as ideologically cocksure. They have desire for tolerance that pushes them toward libertarianism, but they lack the baby boomer mentality, which is to remake the world in our own image.
The polling results suggest a picture of what parish priests face. The baby boomer generation has a lot of self-identified Catholics who are still somewhat engaged by the Church. They attend, perhaps less than weekly, but they’re part of the parish. They care about the Church. But they’re often mad at the Church. They’re the ambivalent generation—the Church has a hold on their spiritual imaginations, but they don’t like the “conservatism” of the Church hierarchy. They want to get back to the “spirit” of Vatican II.
Meanwhile, in the up-and-coming generation, the parish priest finds fewer ambivalent Catholics. We need finer-grained data (for example, a weekly mass attendance broken down by age cohort) but data dearth notwithstanding, here is my hypothesis: Many were raised with the ambivalence of their baby boomer parents, but they don’t feel the grip of the Church on their imaginations. They’ve drifted away. Those who’ve stayed (or returned) tend to be more committed. Some are warm in their affirmations of traditional views. Others, perhaps a larger cohort, have internal misgivings and doubts, but unlike the arrogant baby boomers who’ve always insisted on themselves, they accept the Church for what it is—a spiritual institution committed to supernatural truths that aren’t up for vote.
It’s this pastoral reality that foretells no strong pressure for the Church to change from the path set by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The clerical leadership of the Church is not interested in satisfying the desires of the ambivalent baby boomers who have made their lives difficult for decades, especially not when their children are either out of the picture altogether, or more inclined to affirm the Church’s present trajectory.