September 30, 2016


Why young people leave the faith

We published an editorial in our Aug. 19 issue that questioned how our children can learn about their Catholic faith in this highly secular culture. Shortly after that editorial appeared, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) released two studies that show the importance of finding answers to our question. The first results from those studies were released in an article by Mark M. Gray in the Aug. 28 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.

The studies examined why young people are leaving the Catholic Church, and it seems to boil down to the fact that they are ignorant about what the Church teaches. They believe that Catholicism is incompatible with what they are learning in high school or college. And they believe this because a full 42 percent of millennial Catholics (born in 1982 or later) have never been enrolled in a Catholic school, parish-based religious education classes, or a youth ministry program.

Only 30 percent of them were ever enrolled in a Catholic primary school, 36 percent in parish-based religious education, and 18 percent in a Catholic high school. So how can they know what Catholicism teaches? We know that parents are called to be their “first educators in the faith,” but the Church is there to help them in schools and catechetical and youth ministry programs, especially in our increasingly secular culture.

It’s not much better for the post-Vatican II Catholics (born 1961-1981). Thirty-eight percent of them were never enrolled in Catholic education or participated in youth or college ministry programs.

Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said that they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17, with 13 being the typical age. This, obviously, is when they’re in middle school or high school. They are learning secular subjects, but nothing accurate about Catholicism.

When asked why they dropped out, they responded in various ways. However, one in five replied that they left because they no longer believed in God or religion. That sad reality is reflected in the comment, “Because I grew up and realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”

Many of the answers given by the young people showed that they believe that religion and science are incompatible. For example, there was this reply: “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”

This demonstrates that they don’t know what Catholicism teaches. In Catholic schools, students learn that there can be no discrepancy between religion and science because God is the author of both.

As the article in Our Sunday Visitor said about students in Catholic schools, “They may be in a religious education class at one moment, and in a laboratory learning about evolution in the next. This is something a Catholic student in a public school or at another private Christian school is unable or very unlikely to encounter.”

Without being exposed to what the Catholic Church actually teaches, these young people only think that they know. Thirty percent of U.S. adult Catholics without formal religious education imagine that the Church takes the Bible literally word for word, as some evangelical faith communities do, and that just isn’t true.

Unlike fundamentalism, Catholicism does not teach, for example, that the first chapter of Genesis is scientifically accurate. In fact, the Big Bang Theory, the prevailing cosmological model for the universe, was first proposed by a Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer, Father Georges Lemaitre, in 1927. If that is how God created the universe, the Catholic Church has no problem with such origins.

It’s similar with evolution. As those who have received Catholic education understand, the Catholic Church is not part of the arguments between atheistic biologists and religious fundamentalists. Catholicism accepts the scientific facts that humans evolved over time through natural selection, but it insists that, contrary to what Charles Darwin taught, humans are not an accident. From all eternity, God meant that humans should exist. It also teaches, apart from advocates of Darwinian evolution, that the human soul is not a product of evolution but is created directly by God.

Another reason some of those surveyed gave for leaving the Catholic Church is that they did not like the Church’s rules and judgmental approach. This might be simply the normal reaction of teenagers, but it could also indicate that the Church isn’t getting the reasons for its rules across to them.

Somehow the Catholic Church must reach young people not in our schools. It’s becoming ever more difficult to do so.

—John F. Fink

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