NEW YORK – More Catholics are leaving the faith than ever before — more so than in any other religion — and a new study out this week is trying to help make sense of why so many young adults are leaving the faith at such an early age.
“Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” released by Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, comes at a time when Pope Francis is seeking to focus the attention of the global Church on the needs of young people.
While the responses of the nearly 1,500 young people surveyed in this sample population are neither definitive nor conclusive, they will likely serve as a useful tool in the lead up to the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment called by Pope Francis which will take place this coming October in Rome.
As Francis wrote in the preparatory document for the synod, “By listening to young people, the Church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world.”
If that’s the case, then there is much to be heard and learned in this new qualitative report.
As the study notes, the Catholic population of the United States has grown along with the general population of the country in recent years. More Catholics, however, are leaving the faith than ever before and more so than any other Christian denomination.
“Of all the major denominations, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes, despite these losses having been largely offset by Hispanic immigration to the United States,” the authors report.
2015 data from the Pew Research Center revealed that the number of Americans who are no longer religiously affiliated increased from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 or an estimated 19 million Americans. This population is commonly referred to as “the nones,” which now makes up approximately 56 million people in the United States.
The authors of the report estimate that based on their sample size, “approximately 12.8 percent of U.S. young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are former Catholics, and that approximately 6.8 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of 15 and 17 are former Catholics.”
74 percent of the sample population of this study said they left the faith between the ages of 10 and 20.
While individual responses vary, according to this new study, “disaffiliation from the Church is largely a thoughtful, conscious, intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practice are seen as one option among many.”
In attempting to make sense as to why young Catholics leave the faith, researchers categorized their responses into three major groups: the injured, the drifters, and the dissenters.
For the inured young people, experience with either their family or with the Church itself have often led to a conflict of faith leading to their departure from it. Among the range of experiences in this category are divorce, illness, and death. The authors note that while faith is often considered a source of hope and sustenance in these circumstances, this can also be a period in which ties to the Church are severed.
Drifters, however, are said to leave the Church due to a slow disconnect between what they describe as “meaningless rules and rituals” of the Church versus that of their experience with the “real world.” For many within this population, the example of parents is also critical.
“Young people will unconsciously absorb parents’ attitudes,” the authors note.
If the drifters come to exhibit a “so what?” attitude toward the Church, the dissenters are known for their more active resistance to certain teachings of the Church. While opposition to neuralgic issues — such as gay marriage, contraception, and abortion — is most common, often their disagreement is over more fundamental questions of doctrine, such as salvation, heaven, and hell.
According to the report’s findings, 35 percent of respondents no longer have any form of religious affiliation, 29 percent identify with a non-Protestant Christian affiliation, 14 percent as atheist or agnostic, and 9 percent as Protestant.
Among the various dynamics of disaffiliation, the authors identified six major root causes: an event or series of events leading to doubt; increased cultural secularization; a new sense of freedom after abandoning religious belief; a rejection of a faith that they believe was forcibly passed on to them; the conviction that it is possible to live an ethical life without religion; and a willingness to reevaluate their faith if presented with rational argument or evidence.
John Vitek, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Press and one of the two principal authors of the report, said that the ultimate purpose of such a study was to present a forum in which young people could offer their stories “in their own words, uncensored and unfiltered.”
According to the authors, the study should prompt pastoral leaders to reflect on two primary questions in consideration of the youth that have left the Church: “Do we know who they are — the depth of their life stories — do we know them by name?” and “Do we miss these individuals now that they are gone?”
Indeed, raising questions for consideration and providing a platform for the voices of young people who have left the faith make up the two-edged use of this study — a topic of conversation that will loom large not just for the Church in this country, but the global Catholic Church for not only the next year, but the foreseeable future.