Civic Engagement among American Catholics, Especially the Post-Vatican II Generation

By James D. Davidson, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Purdue University

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Plan of Analysis

First, I report how many of today’s Catholics are involved in the public square and compare that with the level of Catholics’ civic activity in 1955.  Next, I examine the types of civic groups Catholics are most/least involved in.  Third, I examine generation, gender, income, parish membership, and commitment to the Church to see their relationship with civic engagement for all Catholics and especially for post-Vatican II Catholics.  These analyses indicate the extent to which these influences contribute to engagement overall and within the generation that represents the wave of the future in American Catholicism.  Finally, I estimate the relative importance of these five variables for Catholics generally and for post-Vatican II Catholics in particular.

Findings

Table 1 shows that 62 percent of today’s Catholics belong to no civic organizations.  Twenty-one percent participate in one group; 17 percent belong to two or more groups.11  Table 1 also compares today’s membership rate with the rate recorded in the 1955 national study.   The 1999 rate of civic engagement is somewhat higher than the rate recorded fifty-four years earlier, when 69 percent of Catholics participated in no  groups, 17 percent participated in one group, and 14 percent belonged to two or more groups. 

Table 1
Catholic Membership in Voluntary Associations, 1955-1999 (percent)
Study Year None One Two+
Davidson 1999 62 21 17
Wright and Hyman & Hausknecht 1955 69 17 14

Table 2 indicates the types of groups Catholics are currently involved in.  Ten percent are in religious/Catholic groups.  The Knights of Columbus is mentioned most often (5 percent), followed by Bible study groups (1.4 percent), “church groups” (.9 percent), and the Altar Society (.8 percent).  Another 10 percent of Catholics are in a variety of groups coded as "other.”  This category includes a combination of religious and secular organizations (see section on “research design”), but there is no way to tell how frequently each group was mentioned by respondents.  Seven percent of Catholics are in fraternity/sorority groups, especially women’s clubs (1.5 percent) and the Elks (1.2 percent).  Five percent are in sports/fitness groups.  Unspecified sports and fitness groups are listed by 2.9 percent of Catholics.12  Three percent are in education/cultural groups, especially the PTA (1.3 percent).  Two percent are in political/volunteer groups.  Boy Scout and Girl Scouts are mentioned most often, followed by volunteer groups such as volunteer firefighters).  Only one percent of Catholics said they are in business groups.

Table 2 also shows the extent of each generation's involvement in each sphere. Overall, the pre-Vatican II generation is a bit more actively involved than both the Vatican II and the post-Vatican II generations (whose overall rates of involvement are quite similar to one another).  Fifty-seven percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics say they belong to no civic groups, compared to 63 percent of the Vatican II generation and 64 percent of the post-Vatican II generation.  The biggest generational difference centers on involvement in religious/Catholic groups.  Pre-Vatican II Catholics are more involved in religious groups and activities (19 percent vs. 10 percent for Vatican II Catholics and only 6 percent for post-Vatican II Catholics).13   As Putnam has shown, there has been a big decline in membership in the Knights of Columbus (from 11 percent among pre-Vatican II Catholics to only one percent among post-Vatican II Catholics), but there also are noticeable declines in other “church groups” as well (from 2.4 percent to .6 percent).  I find no area where there has been an increase in membership in religious/Catholic organizations.

Other generational differences are smaller but, when combined, almost cancel out the differences in religious activity.  The pre-Vatican II generation is a bit more active in fraternity and sorority groups (9 percent) than the other two generations.  The Vatican II generation is most active in “other” groups (11 percent).  The post-Vatican II generation is most involved in sports/fitness groups (6 percent), education/cultural groups (4 per-cent), and political/volunteer groups (3 percent).  The Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations were a bit more involved in business groups than the pre-Vatican II generation. 

Table 2
Types of Civic Engagement for Total Sample and by Generation (percent)
   

Generation

Activity Total
Sample
Pre-
Vatican II
Vatican
II
 Post-
Vatican II
None 62 57 63 64
Religious/
Catholic
10 19 10 6
Other 10 9 11 9
Fraternity/
Sorority
7 9 5 7
Sports/
Fitness
5 4 4 6
Sports/
Fitness
3 1 4 4
Political/
Volunteer
2 .4 2 3
Business   1 .3 1 1
   (100)  (100)  (100)  (100)

Table 3 indicates that men and women are more similar than different.  Women are twice as likely to be involved in fraternity/sorority groups, and men are more likely to belong to sports/fitness groups.  Otherwise, the genders were quite similar in the extent and nature of their civic engagement.  There also are relatively small differences between post-Vatican II men and women.  Except for the fact that young adult women are more involved in fraternal/sorority groups and men in sports/fitness groups, the similarities between young men and young women outweighed the differences.

Table 3
Civic Engagement by Gender for Total Sample and Post Vatican II Generation (percent)
  Total Sample Post-Vatican II
Generation
 
Activity Male     Female Male Female
None  62 62 64 64
Religious/
Catholic
11 9 5 6
Other 9 10 9 8
Fraternity/
Sorority
5 9 5 10
Sports/
Fitness
7 2 9 3
Education/
Cultural
2 4 4 5
Political/
Volunteer
3 2 3 2
Business  1 1 1 1
  (100) (100) (100) (100)

Table 4 shows that the higher one's income, the more likely one is to participate in virtually all types of civic activities.  Although the differences between low- and middle-income people are smaller, there are sizable differences between these two income groups and high-income Catholics. Table 4 also indicates that the effects of income are in the same direction but even greater in magnitude among post-Vatican II Catholics.  High-income post-Vatican II Catholics are much more involved in civic groups and activities than low- to -middle income members of this generation.  They are noticeably more involved in religious/Catholic groups, other groups, sports/fitness groups, and educational/cultural activities.  Middle- and high-income Catholics also are more involved in political/volunteer groups.  There are no appreciable differences in the areas of business and fraternity/sorority groups.

Table 4
Civic Engagement by for Total Sample and Post-Vatican II Generation (percent)
 

Total Sample

Post-Vatican II
Generation

 
  Below
$30,000
$30,000
$74,999
$75,000
or More
Below
$30,000
$30,000
$74,999
$75,000
or More
Activity
None 70 63 43 75 66 40
Religious/
Catholic
10 10 14 6 3 13
Other 8 10 12 5 9 14
Fraternity/
Sorority
6 6 9 6 8 7
Sports/
Fitness 
4 5 9 5 5 12
Education/
Cultural 
2 2 4 9
Political/
Volunteer
1 3 5 1 4 5
Business .3 2 1 1 2 --
  (100) (100) (100) (100) (100) (100)

Overall, parishioners are more active in civic groups than non-parishioners (see Table 5).  Although 75 percent of non-parishioners belong to no civic groups, only 56 percent of parishioners are without civic commitments.  Not surprisingly, parishioners are much more involved than non-parishioners in religious/Catholic activities.  But they also are more involved in other groups (34 percent vs 24 percent), especially in fraternity/sorority groups.  Essentially the same pattern holds true for post-Vatican Catholics, though parish membership has less impact on their religious/Catholic activity than it does among older Catholics. Young adult parishioners are ten times as likely to be active in religious/Catholic groups, four times as likely to be in political/volunteer groups, more than twice as likely to be in fraternity/sorority groups, and almost twice as likely to be in other groups.  Non-parishioners, on the other hand, are more involved in business groups.

Table 5
Civic Engagement by Parish Membership Total Sample and Post-Vatican Generation (percent)
  Total Sample Post-Vatican II
Generation
 
Activity Parishioners Non-
parishioners
Parishioners Non-
parishioners
None 56 75 58 73
Religious/
Catholic
15 1  10 1
Other 10 10 6
Fraternity/
Sorority
9 4 9 4
Sports/
Fitness
4  6  7
Education/
Cultural
4 3 4 4
Political/
Volunteer
3 2 4 1
Business 1 2 -- 3
  (100) (100) (100) (100)

Table 6 indicates a positive relationship between commitment to the Church and involvement in civic activities.  As I expected, the strongest connection is between commitment and involvement in religious/Catholic activities.  Only four to six percent of Catholics with low to medium levels of commitment are active the religious/Catholic, compared to 31 percent of Catholics who are high in commitment.  Catholics of medium to high levels of commitment also are more active in fraternities and sororities, but less active in sports/fitness groups.  There are no appreciable differences in other areas. Commitment to the Church also is linked to involvement in religious/Catholic activities and fraternity/sorority activities among post-Vatican II Catholics.  Post-Vatican II Catholics who are medium to high in commitment to the Church are less involved in sport/fitness and educational/cultural activities.  Other differences are small.

Table 6
Civic Engagement by Commitment to the Church for Total Sample and Post-Vatican II Generation (percent)
  Total Sample Post-Vatican II
Generation
 
  Commitment Commitment
Activity Low Medium High Low Medium High
None 72 68 40 69 66 43
Religious/
Catholic
4 6 31 -- 27
Other 9 9 12 8 9 6
Fraternity/
Sorority
1 8 8 -- 9 11
Sports/
Fitness
8 3 11 5 5
Education/
Cultural
5 3  4 7 4
Political/
Volunteer
2 2 2 3 3 5
Business 2 1 1 2 1 --
  (100)  (100)  (100)  (100)  (100)  (100) 

Finally, I compare the data in tables 2 through 6 to estimate the relative importance of these five variables for all Catholics.  There is a 10 point difference between highly committed Catholics and Catholics who are low in commitment to the Church; a seven point gap between high and low income Catholics; a six point gap between parishioners and non-parishioners; a four point gap between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Catholics; and a two point gap between men and women.  When I isolate the post-Vatican II generation, once again commitment to the Church is the most important influence (a 10 point gap).  It is followed, once again, by income (a nine point gap), parish membership (five points), and gender (two points).  


Footnotes

11. Eleven percent are in two groups; five percent belong to three groups; and only one percent belong to four or more groups. 

12. Interestingly, in light of Putnam’s argument, the second largest activity in this category is bowling.

13. These generational differences parallel other findings showing generational differences in Mass attendance (see D’Antonio et al, 2001; Davidson et al., 1997).

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