by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
Two national studies produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University, finds that young Catholics are abandoning their faith starting around the age of 10, and certainly by age 17 (Confirmation catechists, please note!).
Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they no longer identify themselves as Catholics by the age 17, and another 23% said they stopped regarding themselves as Catholic by the age 10.
Of those who had left the faith, only 13% said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.
The reason most often given is the tension young people perceive between faith and religion. While this factor is highest among students at public school, it is also remarkably high among students at Catholic schools.
There is an emerging profile of youth who say their religious formation is incompatible with what they are learning in public high school or university.
Dr. Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA, speaks of an unprecedented “crisis of faith” among youth. “In the whole concept of faith, this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations.” There is a severe compartmentalization between education in faith and in science. The fundamental problem is that youth may go to Mass once a week but spend the rest of the week learning “how dumb” their faith is.
On a positive note, Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, states that there are three factors that yield a high retention rate among young Catholics. The first is that the young people have a “weekly activity” like catechesis, Bible study, or youth group. The second is the availability of adults (not their parents) with whom they can discuss their faith. The third is the possibility of providing “deep spiritual experiences.”
I am no sociologist of religion, least of all of that which deals with youth. But my own experience tells me that besides the three factors mentioned here, there are the three additional factors: There is daily prayer in the home, parents and children talking about their faith, and some kind of weekly charitable service made possible for the young people.
Some (like me!) worry about the quality of religious formation of children and youth. Things have improved a lot since the horrid days of religious formation in the 70s and 80s. But, having kept an eye on the kind of texts being used, even the better ones are inadequate. If you want your child to be well informed in the faith, then don’t look at the typical text available. We have a long way to go in this area. For one thing, we need to bring back a thoroughly updated question-and-answer catechism.
There is also the question of parish religious education teachers and Catholic school teachers. Would you be surprised to know that many of them do not go to Sunday Mass regularly and have “difficulties” with the Church? Surely this has to have a disastrous effect on the students for whom they have responsibility. I have seen no data on this, so I am basing what I say on what I have observed and read over the years and what other pastors tell me.
Finally, there are the parents, who rarely if ever talk to their children about the faith and the necessity of growing strong in it. And do parents, even of Catholic school children, go to Mass on Sundays? The vast majority, I fear, do not.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.
MY COMMENTS: The elephant in the room is a "spirit of Vatican II" mentality which refuses to look at what was good and timeless, and let me underline timelessness, of the pre-Vatican II Church, especially her experience in the 1950's.
There needs to be a study of the timeless quality of Catholic life and how this life strengthened Catholic families. Then there needs to be a concerted universal thrust or catchesis to shape the culture of the Catholic Church and her members.
Let me list my wish list:
1. Bring back the Baltimore Catechism and make it the catechism of our country. It might need some minor tweaking but leave it as it is with some updated examples. It's simplicity but depth forms a foundation for Catholics even if they stop going to religious education after they are Confirmed. It is simple enough for them to use as a reference book even later in life. Theolgically it only needs some minor post-Vatican II updating as it concerns ecumenism and the liturgy (without doing away with the chapters on the Tridentine Mass but simply adding the reformed version.
2. Bring back the culture of Cathoicism lived at home and the world, especially a more rigorous fasting and abstinence as in the 1950's or early '60's. This extends Cathoicism into the home and work place and identifies us as Cathoics to a secular culture. Bring back ember days and all of the Holy Days of Obliagation as in the 1950's without silly exceptions like it falling on a Friday or Monday and thus not obligatory.
3. Instill a sense of obligation as the basis for religious practice even when religious practice doesn't seem personally satisfying. This ties into "suffering as a virtue" and the need to see suffering as a good when it leads us to faithfulness.
4. Focus on the Liturgy in either form as instilling depth to faith, seriousness, piety and reverence.
When I visit various classrooms and teach, I use the Baltimore Catehcism and tell the kids there will be a test at the end. I use the fill in the blank and true or false questions provided by the Baltimore Catechism. We do it out loud and it is fun and engages the children. We need a recovery of this. It is possible but there has to be national and universal leadership which is lacking. It is pre-Vatican II phobia!