The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 262012

It is well known that organized Christianity in Europe faces a crisis of abandonment and disinterest. This is even true in the predominantly Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe, which are still popularly regarded as traditionally devout.

In terms of daily cultural habits, yes, plenty devotion still survives: belief in miracles is widespread, genuflection is spontaneous, and a glimpse of the procession of Virgin Mary can still freeze traffic.  Yet in terms of church attendance, the decline is astonishing.  In today’s Spain, only 20 percent of the population goes to church weekly (versus 40-50 percent in the United States).  Roughly half never go to church.  And rest are “holiday” Catholics, going only on Easter and Christmas.

What happened?  Very simply, a large share of Spanish Boomers (born roughly in the same years as in America, perhaps a few years later) simply stopped going to church when they married and formed families in the 1970s and 1980s.  To some extent, American Boomers did the same thing–but then they came back to churches later on, and most Xers and Millennials followed them.  In Spain and Portugal and Italy, Boomers didn’t come back, and younger generations never followed them back.   (Similarly, a cynic might point out, the ’60s and ’70s-era declining birth rate eventually rebounded in the United States, but has just kept trending downward in southern Europe.)

This generational shift has produced a very conspicuous age gradiant: Namely, those who do attend church today tend to be old.  Italians who attend an ordinary mass in the United States are shocked by the sight of so young families with small kids; they simply don’t see that in Naples, Rome, or Milan.  Even more dramatic is the aging of the clergy.  As of 2009, according to one report, the average age of priests in Spain has risen to 63; in some regions, it has risen to 72.  Ireland has responded to its own priest shortage by bringing in legions of zealous Nigerian clergy. Spain, thus far, is simply spreading what is has a lot thinner.  In roughly half of Spain’s 23,286 parishes, there is no permanent priest in residence.  In some rural areas, a single priest ministers to ten or more parishes.  Seminaries, especially during the huge economic boom of the mid-2000s, saw almost no new young people knocking on their door.  As of 2009, Barcelona (an urban area of well over four million) had only 30 seminarians.  Total.

Now comes the crash after the boom.  Now we see one quarter of all working-age Spaniards–and one half of Spaniards under age 25–unemployed.  Vast numbers of Spanish youth have been hanging around public urban areas for months, where they are known as the indignados (the outraged) and carry signs saying Juventud Sin Futuro (youth without a future).  With Euro-credit drying up, with new businesses and real estate in free fall, with economic deleveraging in high gear, with secular dreams dying… could this be a good moment for the Church to recoup its losses?

In 2011, seminary recruitment actually rose by 4 percent–the first rise in decades.  Will it continue?

Before answering that question, let me digress briefly.  Anyone who has followed my writing knows that organized religion typically experiences great challenges entering the “crisis turnings,” 2Ts and 4Ts.

Entering a 2T, the problem is that churches have come to represent the “salvation by works” establishment–in an era when society as a whole (and especially the young Prophet archetype) yearns for values and meaning  and “salvation by faith.”  (This collision has defined all of the great awakenings in American history.)  Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Prophet archetype.

Entering a 4T, the problem is very different, but no less severe: Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment breakdown–at a time when the leadership of organized religion is most apt to emphasize the most moralistic, individualistic, and exclusive aspects of its doctrines.    Long-term winners?  Those who know how to place their bets with young Hero archetype.  Very likely, this is going to be a movement that champions the Social Gospel, an emphasis on serving God by doing good deeds in the service of the great mass of His people.

This is the light in which I would like you to reflect upon the following video, produced by an association of Spanish bishops together with an ad agency.  The video has recently gone epidemically viral in Spain.  Note the shrewd focus on youth, service, community, and hope.  (Almost nothing about salvation, conversion, truth, or morality.)  I will show the bi-lingual youtube version here.  My sincere thanks to  Deon N. (Xer living in La Habra, California) for point this out to me.

Will this new appeal by the Spanish Catholic Church succeed?  I have no idea.

But I do know a lesson of history.  It often happens that one ideology and institutional framework, after triumphing over its rivals and delivering great success, suddenly and epically fails.  And when that happens, societies sometimes switch their allegience back to the ideology or belief system that was devalued.  I’m not judging here, just observing.  Look at what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, a system of thinking which suppressed or marginalized any expression of religious faith.  Result?  Today, several (though certainly not all) of these countries now show rates of (Catholic) church attendance that are much higher than in any western European country–most notably Poland, but also Rumania, Slovakia, and Croatia.

The odds are still long against the Spanish Church making a comeback.  But they’ve been around for nearly twenty centuries.  And they’re are giving it their best shot.

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  • Chad

    This is sort of unrelated, but I assume that the saeculums for everyone in every region in the world, at one point occurred in a different rhythm. While one region was giving rise to a Nomad generation, another was giving rise to a Prophet generation for example. It appears that now – globally – the saeculums are beginning to synchronize a bit more due to the rise of Globalization. 

    To help illustrate what I’m trying to say; watch this video of these five metronomes. ( when they are on the table [pre-globalization] they maintain their own rhythm – but when placed on a medium that helps to quickly disseminate their vibrations – they all quickly synchronize with each other. 

    Perhaps this is why their is a global revolutionary zeitgeist currently, why the ‘millenial’ generation isn’t just American but also international.

    I believe that history also illustrates this a bit, especially around the turn of the century. Russia was going through a crisis era while the USA was going through it’s pre-crisis era. Due to these era’s of each region not being ‘synchronized’ the USA had the residual effects of Russia’s crisis era saeculum (due to immigrants from that region who still were strongly attached to their native saeculums)- which we saw with the Haymarket riots, Emma Goldman, Mary Harris Jones, the struggle for the 8 hour work day and the assassination of McKinley etc.. 

    This might explain some of the anomalies in American history in regards to the saeculums.

    If this theory has already been discussed, I apologize for the redundancy. 

    • Don’t apologize for a good question!

      I love your analogy to the synchronization of pendulums.  Actually, it was the Dutch mathematician and polymath Christiaan Huygens who first discovered this effect in 1665.  It can be explained, through differential equations, as the way a connected harmonic system can minimize energy loss.  It is related to the reason why the moon rotates at exactly the same periodicity as it moves around the earth.  It is gravitationally “synched” to the earth, which is why we never see the “dark side of the moon” (apologies to Pink Floyd).

      In fact, we have done a fair amount of research on generations and turnings in other countries over the last few centuries.  I hope to be able to reveal some of this in subsequent posts or publications.  Let me offer my quick Cliff Notes here: Since WWII, much of the world–including all of the English-speaking world, all of Europe (Russia too), and East Asia–have been moving roughly in synch with America, though perhaps with a lag of 5-10 years in some countries.  The Islamic belt, running from Dakar to Djakarta and including the Berber, Arab, Turkic, Persian, and Mogul cultures, are on a somewhat different rhythm.  This too is something I hope to return to on these posts.

      • Chad

        Thank you! That question had been nagging on me for almost a month now. 

        Jay Griffiths book, A Sideways Look At Time demonstrated how time, and perceptions of time in different cultures help to shape a peoples outlook on the world around them. How time has physiological, natural, planetary, lunar and solar influences etc, and it’s role on the human psyche. This idea is discussed in your book, The Fourth Turning as well in regards to linear vs. cyclical time. 

        I figured that since capitalism and Globalization were universalizing time (first through Greenwich Mean Time, then Coordinated Universal Time, and soon Atomic Time)- and universalizing peoples perception of it, a synchronization of different regions in regards to their saeculums, I assumed, would be an outcome of this. I was trying to develop some sort of understanding as to why different regions had slightly different saeculums – and why they seemed to be matching up more closely in recent history.

        I am looking forward to reading your work on other regions turnings – and to see where my views in regards to the topic either line up or fall flat in regards to your research. My understanding of this is developing.

        Changing gears a bit: I do have a nominee for a “Gray Champion” for the current Fourth Turning, a person whose writings are helping to fuel much of the global uprisings – especially in Europe.

        93 year old Stephane Hessel  asserts the following idea in his more recent book, The Path To Hope (who’s previous book, Time For Outrage has sold over 4 million copies globally). 

        “We cannot ourselves determine the fate of our planet. We can, however, chart a long, daunting, momentous path that leads to the creation of a single Homeland Earth. Such a worldwide homeland could encompass as well as safeguard the individual homelands, and it would do so in the name of the principles set forth in those [Universal principles]. This means we have to abolish the absolutes sovereignty of all nation-states in order to take on the challenges of the planetwide problems of the global era, but we would be able to preserve that sovereignty in all other sectors.”

        “We are not trying to found a new party, nor are we rallying adherence to an existing party. We are calling for a political rebirth…”

  • Dragline

    The Spanish RC Church seems to be going in a different direction than in the U.S.  Have you been following the recent conflicts involving the American nuns and the Church and now the lawsuit by the American bishops?  A number of nascent issues are now coming to a head, but the focus in the U.S. has been more on doctrine and less on community service.  All of it does seem to echo back to the the 2T Vatican II reforms, though.  You might want to start following Fr. James Martin on Facebook and Twitter to see what’s going on — it fits very well into your cyclical thesis.

  • Iris

    Neil, I only recently (February) came across The Fourth Turning and I’ve been reading all of your books as fast as possible. I find them enlightening, educational, informative, and fascinating.

    With regards to this post, I wonder if during this 4T the Catholic Church will experience such great challenges that it will collapse? If, as you say, “Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking
    for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment
    breakdown” then will Society come to realize that the Catholic Church has been the catalyst for horrendous acts and as a result completely turn against it?

    History shows us that the the Catholic Church, on both global and local levels, has behaved in an appalling manner. If during the 4T “the leadership of organized religion” does not match what Society is looking for then could secular organizations replace the church as people acknowledge the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church?

    Take, for example, the case of the pedophile priests. “Dolan almost immediately set
    about exploring financial incentives that would encourage them [priests] to step
    down and fade away into the community. He emphatically denied in 2006
    that this was the case. But during subsequent bankruptcy proceedings for
    the Milwaukee archdiocese, public documents showed that Dolan had
    discussed payout options with his finance committee as early as 2003.
    Now email from Julie Wolf, communications director for the archdiocese,
    confirms that pedophiles were paid up to $20,000 apiece in exchange for
    quietly relinquishing their positions in the church.” *

    It just seems to me that everyone, especially the Spaniards, should be aware of the backhanded activities of the Catholic Church and that joining the church may not be such a ‘passionate’ career. I mean, if I was a Spaniard and unemployed and looking for a solution to my distress and I found that the head of Catholic Bishops paid pedophiles to disappear it would be of great concern, to the point where I would look somewhere else for assistance.

    If these revelations are occurring at the beginning of this 4T, I wonder what’s in store for the Catholic Church down the road? Or will the rigidness of religious dogma, disturbing to say the least, literally bypass the facts presented and allow the Catholic Church to thrive?

    * Source:

    • Iris: Thanks for your interest.  I understand your ire at the Church.  I do know that many would take a more charitable view–by pointing out, for example, that secular institutions having custody of children have also hired pedophiles and that they too often pay off victims families to avoid civil as well as criminal penalties.  Regrettably, institutions are run by humans, and humans are far from perfect.  Nor am I sure that secular authority is necessarily the answer.  Last I heard, the secular European authorities will do nothing against Roman Polanski, where the facts are known to everybody.

      Rather than argue pro or con on the degree of the Church’s fault in all this–a rather fruitless enterprise, I think–let me point out something more generationally interesting: namely Polanski’s age (78).  By all accounts, the priest abuse rate rose in the 1960s, peaked in the 70s, and has been declining in subsequent decades.  Roughly three-quarters of the accused priests were born before 1945, making this an affliction of the Silent Generation in the priesthood more than any other.  Which prompts many interesting questions.  Did many of them enter the priesthood too young or unwillingly?  Did Vatican II and the ’60s movements hit them (as they apparently did Polanski) at just the wrong age?  One thing we do know is that Boomers and Xers have been getting ordained at older ages–and that they are more severe/orthodox in their attitudes toward celebacy.  This remarkable age-bracketed opinion data comes from Catholic University.  I hope I have opportunity to return to this issue in a later post.

  • bdono2

    Sorry for the paleo-comment here… I haven’t read the blog for some time. I am a Catholic priest and, I think, the last of a Gen-X segment of priests, as I think there has been a definite change in the attitudes of young priests since about the time of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 (not that that event in itself caused a change, but it is a convenient point of deliniation between what came before and what has come after.) I have read your 4T book years ago with great interest. Someday I’d like to write on this topic in a more formal way, but alas, I keep busy with everything else I am doing trying to hold my parish together in the midst of tremendous challenges.
    An observation I’d like to contribute is that the leadership of the Church always seems to be tracking about a generation behind the rest of the world.
    Right now, it is the Silent generation passing out of the top leadership roles (pope, bishops who are required to retire at 75, pastors)… these are the folks beginning to assume leadership at the time of the Second Vatican Council, enabling and encouraging their Lost and GI leaders who wanted to bring about careful (humane, logical, empathetic) change and reform (maybe something like they saw in FDR a generation earlier), but got caught in the zeitgeist and/or cultural cross-fire of the age. The time of the Council was a time of great reform, but tremendous disorder in the life of the Church. While Silents engineered the most radical reforms of the age, it was the Boomers that idealistically wanted to embrace that change who carried it out in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s as they became pastors and bishops… almost a generation ‘late’ from the the libertine era of the 60s. Intrestingly, their influence was attenuated by the massive attrition rate of disenchanted priests and religious during that era, leaving only the ‘survivors’ (dare I say through a kind of of ‘natural selection’ process) who will be either a more ‘traditional’, and ‘institutional’ type or will otherwise be hopelessly skeptical and bitter because they could never get a ‘real job’ outside the Church. Boomers have been and are now the senior pastors, bishops, and leaders inside dioceses who are setting the tone and responding (often in flat-footed ways) to the very complicated, post-modern world that they find themselves in… being idealists with respect to politics (Dolan inviting Obama to the Al Smith dinner, the interations of “Faithful Citizenship” document), compromisers under pressure from social challenges (steep rise of divorces/annulments going through tribunals, squeamishness about preaching on birth control, etc), and feeling rejection for their efforts (as I said earlier, the high rate of attrition, the handling of the sex-abuse crisis and the resulting bitterness over that, diocesan bankruptcies, large flows of people away from attending Church despite best efforts to accomodate, etc).
    Gen X is just in recent years started becoming pastors and leaders (although they have been forced into these roles a little earlier than those who have gone before due to smaller number of priests out there, perhaps accelerating their generation’s influence a bit) and in coming years will rise to roles as bishops for the first time in the coming decade. X’ers generally don’t care for the disorder which the Church experienced in the 70s and 80s and early 90s, who are clearly of an ‘institutional’ mind set- rejecting what society has to offer and being more apt to trust and reform the Church’s machinery, often using models that look more “traditional” or “conservative”, but really are not usually politically motivated, so much as they are ‘validated’ by time and experience… vis, the surge in the Latin Mass accepted by this generation and embraced by younger (Gen X) priests that confuse many of the (older) faithful (including older brother priests and bishops), surge in interest around Thomistics and Patristics as areas of study in theologates, stronger teaching on politics, abortion, birth control (not only because of their desire to embrace the teachings of the Church on life, but also because they identify themselves as the first ‘aborted generation’), etc, and a crusader-like menality to resist “the enemy”, which is often identified as secularism (in stark contrast to the Boomers and those before whose basic project was to make the Church more ‘friendly’ to the secular world.) X-er’s speak of “(social) justice”, but in completely different terms than their Boomer mentors, preferring to be rooted in more objective, rather than subjective, understandings of right and wrong. They can come off as cold and doctrinaire, but there tends to be is a war-worn pragmetism and incrementalism to ‘bring people along’ as best they can–working hard to keep everyone together, but not sacrificing what is “right” to do it. They’re a smaller group than those who came before, working harder and rising faster, but tending towards a deep cynicism in institutions and people in their darker moments.
    We can see the conflict between generaions by comparing the attitudes between religious sisters in the LCWR who perceive themselves as being “under attack” for not upholding doctrine and practice (typically from dying Boomer communities hardest hit by attrition, and now the passing on of its older members) versus the younger X and Millenial sisters in very traditional orders (habits, identity, community life) who are presently growing.
    These are gross generalizations, of course, but as we look forward into the Millenials, those who are acutally embracing the teachings of the Church and giving their lives to ministry, are even more ‘traditional” in their outlooks, I find. They, too, are survivors of a lost generation and are being punished by the sins of those who have gone before… the scandal, bankruptcies, low attendance, etc, but they find identity not in their resistance, like X’ers, but in simply being ‘right’… they are heroes not because of what they do, but because the assume responsibility for what they have been called to be. (While sometimes questioning the stridency of their younger brothers, X’ers will nonetheless be enablers of these attitudes as they are embraced as comrades in their own epic battle.) While Millenial counterparts are now the generation getting jobs and raising families and exerting influence on society, their influence within the Church will proabably not be felt in its fullness for another 20 years as they become pastors in parishes and then bishops in dioceses– at the behest and selection of their ‘crusading’ Gen X mentors.
    I hate to call it the ‘pendulum swinging’, but there might be something to that. My guess is that the leadership of the Church is going to be as ‘traditional’ as it possibly can be in the next few decades… As Boomers recede into history, the X’ers will be the reluctant leaders, enabling the idealistic Millenial’s (Y’s) as the young up-and-commers who will in turn be the heroes during societal crisis, all the while forming the newest generation (Z’s?) into the next wave of reformers. Over time, in the place of the Boomers, it will be the X’ers and Y’ers that will be the flat-footed old-timers (Barry Fitzgerald’s Fr. Fitzgibbon to Bing Crosby’s Fr. Chuck O’Malley) trying to adjust to a world whose needs have passed them by? Maybe there is something good about that.
    If the Z generation become the new reformers (the Fr. O’Malley’s), they would come of age in the 2050-60’s which would be about 100 years after the previous Council. At that point all of the primary actors and re-actors from the Second Vatican Council will be gone. A number of commentators have often said that because of this it takes at least 100 years for the Church to aborb the teachings of a modern Council before a new one can be held… Vatican I and Vatican II were 100 years apart. In ways that could not be understood or appreciated before, I would submit that generational theory may be an explanation for that thought. (I also have thoughts on the topics of the next council, but that’s for another post.)
    The Spanish program cited above will not appeal to the older crowd of Boomers… indeed, they will be scandalized by such a strongly sacerdotal view of priesthood and Church… but, of course, they’re not the ones being targeted by this campaign. Millennials are in many ways disaffected from their Churches and many are no longer attending at all. But those who are apt to give themselves to a religious vocation will see this and consider this invitation to be the next generation of leaders of the Church that is ‘ever ancient, ever new’.

  • bdono2

    I guess I didn’t mention why Church leadership seems a generation behind… priests are ordained no earlier than 26 years old, with the average being in the early-mid 30’s. These new priests often wait at least 3-5 or more years until they are the pastor of a small parish somewhere. It isn’t until they have been in for at least 5-10 years (at least mid 30’s or about 40) until they are pastor of larger, more influential parishes. Priests are not named bishops of dioceses until about 50 years old. While their counterparts are getting started at life, having families and careers, becoming consumers, and so forth in their mid-late 20’s, that cycle is offset to about 40 when priests really start coming of age as leaders in the Catholic Church and begin influencing the life of the Church through their ministries.
    As such, a priest is a strange animal, spread across multiple generations with respect to their attitudes and preferences, watching the world and their generation in action before being able to really express their gifts and talents for the good of the Church. I haven’t considered all the implications of this theory, but I think it is demonstrable as I have given a few examples in my longer post…
    Also, the Church is certainly more than its priests and bishops, even in its leadership. There are interesting intergenrational tensions which form on parish staffs along the lines of emerging leadership from an older (previous generation) pastor and emerging leadership from, say, a (younger 20-something) youth minister or musician, or DRE or pastoral associate. My interest and argument is to focus on the priesthood for now, as that’s where most of my observations and considerations are.
    Maybe there’s a similar phenomenon in academia? Professors take a few extra years to crank out and gain influence in their fields. Medicine? Others?