With the Catholic Church looking more and more like Yeats' rough beast, my social science colleagues have provided a tantalizing glimpse of what was and what might have been. In a research paper based on the massive 1990 and 2008 American Religious Identity Survey data sets, Barry Kosmin and Juhem Navarro-Rivera look at what's happened demographically and religiously to Gen-Xers born between 1965 and 1972.
Among Catholics, these are the Vatican II babies--those who came into the world in the immediate wake of the Second Vatican Council--and in the history of religion in America, there has never been a more Catholic generational cohort. In 1990, when they were 18-25 years old, fully 33 percent identified as Catholics (as opposed to the one-quarter of the American population that had been Catholic since the late 19th century). But by 2008, one in five of those 1990 Catholic adults had dropped away.
The extent of the loss has been somewhat disguised, or mitigated, by the fact that immigration, mostly from Latin America, brought roughly one million Catholics into the cohort. With them, the proportion of Gen-X Catholics dropped to 26 percent; without them, it would have fallen below the national average to 23 percent.
What makes these numbers so noteworthy is that 18-25-year-olds are normally the least religiously identified cohort in American society. It's later, as they get married and have children, that they tend to re-establish (or establish) their religious identities and affiliations. That Gen-X as a whole moved in the opposite direction--with the proportion of those claiming no religion increasing by two-thirds--is due largely to the disaffection of the Catholics. By contrast, the number of Mainline Protestants, who have generally been considered America's weakest religious link, remained nearly constant.
The story behind the numbers would seem to be that Vatican II generated such energy and excitement inside American Catholicism that not only did young parents eagerly enlist their children in church life, but the children remained highly committed through their teens and into their twenties. So what happened?
No doubt, the abuse scandals beginning in the late 1980s and accelerating rapidly after the turn of the century took a huge toll. In addition, however, it is more than likely that the increasingly conservative winds that began to blow out of Rome during the papacy of John Paul II blew a lot of Gen-X away from the church. Many on the Catholic right--including in the hierarchy--have been happy to say good-bye and good riddance to what they've dismissed as its cafeteria Catholicism. But you've got to figure that, as the percentage of Catholics in America drifts towards the teens, those in charge will live to regret blowing the opportunity to capture and hold one-third of the U.S. population.