James D. Davidson of Purdue University and his associates sought to describe what Roman Catholics in Indiana believe about the nature of the church and its role in their lives, their beliefs about theological issues such as the nature of God, the meaning of heaven and hell, the significance of sacraments, and the nature of resurrection, and their views on issues facing the local parishes and dioceses to which they belong as members. Besides describing what Catholics believe, Davidson and associates also attempted to explain the differences among these beliefs and the questions these differences gave rise to such as: why some Catholics emphasize pre-Vatican II beliefs and practices, while others have post-Vatican orientations? What are the social and religious bases of the different ways in which Catholics understand moral issues? Which Catholics are most optimistic and which most pessimistic about the future of the Church?
Considering Second Vatican Council (1962-65) or Vatican II as the watershed event within the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century, Davidson and associates then mapped their description and explanation of what they called “religious pluralism” within the Indiana Catholics around this event. The parishioners in the five dioceses of Indiana were divided into three generational groups defined in relation to the Vatican II: the pre-Vatican II generation whose members are well over fifty years of age and were raised during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s long before the Second Vatican Council; the Vatican-II generation, raised during the 1950s and ‘60s, who were brought up in the pre-Vatican II church, but experienced the Second Vatican Council during their formative years and are presently between thirty to fifty years of age; and the post-Vatican II generation, presently under thirty years of age and who have grown entirely within the post-Vatican II church. Developed around three stages, the researchers conducted this study over a three-year period from 1992 to 1995. In the first stage, the team gathered background information pertaining to parish memberships in all the five Indiana dioceses. The team culled the membership list to include a broadly representative sample of parishioners from all five dioceses with regard to demographic attributes such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity. The research team designed a set of questionnaires aiming to elicit responses from these selected parishioners which indicate their beliefs about the nature of the church, their views on theological issues such as the nature of God and salvation, and their views on their parishes and dioceses. Through these questionnaires, Davidson and associates aimed to get a preliminary sense of religious pluralism among Indiana Catholics.
In the second stage, the team selected approximately thirty Catholics from each of the three generational groups across the five dioceses with a total of about four hundred and fifty parishioners across Indiana. Each of the generational group in every diocese developed as a focus group that met at various times to engage in moderated discussions on the three core issues of how they viewed the church and its role in their lives, their beliefs on theological issues, and their opinions on their own parishes and dioceses. Data derived from discussions in these focus groups enabled the researches to draw more specific conclusions about beliefs and practices of the Indiana Catholics in all five dioceses.
The researchers conducted a national survey of Catholics in the third and final stage in order to determine the extent to which, and the manner in which, Indiana Catholics are similar to or different from the Catholics across the nation as a whole. The researches also sought to explore whether the factors most helpful in accounting for the differences among Catholics in Indiana could also account for differences at the national level.
At the end of the study, Davidson and associates found that the three generational cohorts have significant differences in what each believes about the nature of the church and its role in their lives, the nature of God and related theological issues such as the meaning of heaven and hell, and the ministry of their parishes and dioceses. There were differences also on the level of significance attached to various beliefs, so that there was a hierarchy of beliefs. The team concluded that these difference could be explained on the basis of generational groups and life-course experiences dependent on factors such as when, where and what type of family was one born into and the personal attributes with which one is born as well other experiences in the spheres of religion, family, education, work, politics, and community.