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Going, Going, Gone?

by Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

One of the documents that should have been considered a “must read” for any bishop, priest or lay participant in preparation for the October Synod, “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” is the study undertaken by Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), entitled, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” The research of this study focused on those youth and young adults, ages thirteen to twenty-five, that is, the NONES, as to why they no longer consider themselves Catholic. 

When asked at what age they no longer identified themselves as Catholic, seventy-four percent of the sample said between the ages of ten and twenty, with the median age being thirteen years old. Of those who have left, thirty-five percent no longer belong to any religion, while forty-six percent have joined other religions. An additional fourteen percent report being atheists or agnostics.  From their sample the authors estimated that approximately 12.8 percent of U.S. young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are former Catholics, and that approximately 6.8 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of fifteen and seventeen are former Catholics.

The study points out that there is no single reason why many young people raised as Catholics no longer identify with the Church. Further, there is no one profile that adequately describes those who have left the Church. Yet, in listening to their stories, the authors identified three categories: The Injured, The Drifter, and The Dissenter.

The Injured

One dynamic that led to disaffiliation is negative experiences associated with faith and religious practice, both familial and ecclesial. In particular, disruptions in family life negatively impacted a young person’s faith. The interviewees shared stories of divorce, long-term illness, death of family members, frequent moving and other family issues that caused disruptions in their lives and affected their faith.   

“The original root cause would have been watching my whole mother’s family on my mother’s side, pray for my grandpa’s lung cancer. And everyone is praying for him, probably over 150 people. Personally praying for him and still there was nothing done to help him and that was my first skepticism.”

The Drifter

“So what? What difference does faith make anyway?” 

For some young people, the dynamics of disaffiliation stem from uncertain faith and lack of engagement with a faith community. The authors state connection between religious belief and practice slowly fades until at some point these young people question why they are affiliated in the first place.

“It was not until I went to college that I was officially out of the Catholic Church. I was no longer forced to be Catholic. When this finally happened, I was relieved and happy, really now I was able to make my own decisions. I have never gone back to church.”

The Dissenters

These are young people who exhibit a more active resistance to or rejection of the Church.

They express disagreement with Church teaching on many social issues, particularly same-sex marriage, abortion, and birth control, though the abortion issue seems nuanced in that there is often opposition to abortion, but support for an individual’s right to choose it as an option.

“The religious teachers at my Catholic high school could not provide sufficient evidence or answers to fundamental questions about the beliefs of the Catholic Church and faith, beginning with definitive proof of the existence of an omniscient, benevolent God….Additionally, questions of Catholic social teaching were not justified (e.g., opposition to gay marriage, antiquated views on homosexuality and birth control, opposition to women in positions of power.)”

The authors generated several questions which are important for those involved in pastoral ministry to consider. Here are a few:

•  Can we articulate a compelling and convincing rationale for why religious affiliation and practice matters?

•  Can we provide competent religious formation that addresses the important issues and questions that young Catholics are thinking about at earlier ages?

•  What is the grace that the disaffiliated are bestowing on the Church? What is the Holy Spirit telling the Church through the life stories of those who are disaffiliated?

To end this article on a note of hope, when one teenager was asked if he would ever return to the Catholic Church, he responded, “I wouldn’t rule out someday returning to the Catholic Church, if somebody made a really convincing argument to me.”

by Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway is professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.