Young U.S. Catholics on the Move


Sometimes I fear the Catholic Church in the United States will soon be a conglomeration of grey heads, far-right political protesters, and assorted other people who resonate more with a nineteenth century ethos than with contemporary realities. The final report from the recently concluded synod in Rome – hopeful midway – is less encouraging at its conclusion.

My reflection this week, however, is about young Catholics. While the Vatican vacillates about accepting gays, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly 85% of self-identified Catholics (between the ages of 18 and 29) believe gays and lesbians should be accepted by society. And 75% are in favor of same-sex marriage.

One of my friends reacted to the Pew finding with the comment that “these young Catholics are hardly Catholic.” He may have a point. Another recent study indicates that 80% of today’s young Catholics will have left the Catholic Church by the time they are 23. Change in the wind….

In any event, I have gone back to re-read a book I may have mentioned earlier: Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. (Oxford University Press) The book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, which in 2002 began to study the evolving religious values of 3,290 young Catholics, when they were 13 to 17 years old. They are now, of course, young adults between the ages of 23 and 27.

The book offers some sobering realities. Like climate change, we can begin to take things seriously or ignore the findings and let things – people – go.

• Young Catholics are less knowledgeable about their faith. They don’t understand it, and it doesn’t draw their interest.

• They are more lived-experience-based than church-teaching-based. Their own experiences and those of their peer group shape their understanding of Christian truth and value.

• While they tend to solidly affirm central Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ, they clearly disagree with the church when it speaks about human sexuality, gender differences, birth control, and abortion.

• In general the church does not play a big role in their lives; and they are increasingly less involved in it, e.g. regular liturgical participation.

• Like a growing number of Americans, young American Catholics see themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” Yes I know, this phrase invites a lot of reflection….

• Young American Catholics therefore are more open-minded about and tolerant of people who belong to other Christian traditions and other religions. The Catholic Church for them is simply one denomination among many. It may be of value today but perhaps not tomorrow.

Older Roman Catholics….and Roman Catholic leaders….have a lot to ponder these days. Putting heads in the sand is very tempting.

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7 thoughts on “Young U.S. Catholics on the Move

  1. Thank you for this columen. If I were a bean counter in a diocese or a Cardinal in Rome… I would find this sobering. As a believer I trust in God’s mercy.

  2. I find myself getting more and more angry at church “leaders” who continually, and predictably (sadly) struggle to keep the status quo, i.e., dark ages and princely power. It makes me so sad, and *almost* at the point of apathy. I understand why the youngsters are so ambivalent.

  3. I wonder if this is the Spirit’s way of saying that we have to figure out our priorities — having the Catechism letter perfect or being people of Love & Charity??
    Which is needed more for a Pilgrim church??

    I often think of certain times in RCC history — how the Church in Japan survived 3 centuries hidden behind political walls, bereft without clergy after a generation or two, yet surviving?? Or what about the Korean church — founded in their culture by the Laity — not clerical missionaries??
    Or even in the USA in pioneer times, when people went months or years without circuit riding ministers, yet had Faith??

    • Well the historical Jesus was certainly not a catechism personality……Love and Charity are indeed the signs and power of God’s presence in our lives. Thanks for sharing your comment.

  4. Jack, as usual your comments generate much discussion in this house. we have been listening to a series of CDs from a conference on the Emerging Church in 2009 at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. The provocative discussion of ideas and different perspectives about the emerging church, says to me that the young may be on to something!

    • Great to hear from you, Lee! Yes the you g people are discovering and shaping a bew understanding of yhe christian experience…much bigger than the sixteenth century reformation.
      Many kind regatds
      Jack

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