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Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church
Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church
Kyle Longest; Jonathan Hill; Christian Smith; Kari Christoffersen
Oxford University Press, 2014
336 pp., 40.99

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Anna Sutherland

"Young Catholic America"

A sobering report.

The good news in Young Catholic America is that, for all the talk about the Church's decline, today's American Catholics between ages 18 and 25 are not so different from their predecessors of the 1970s and 80s. That's also the bad news. As in decades past, only a minority of Catholic young adults attend Mass most or all Sundays (34 percent in the 1970s, 20 percent in the 2000s), pray daily (36 percent in the 80s, 45 percent now), and rate their religious affiliation as strong (26 percent in both the 1970s and the 2000s).

Disagreement with the Church's most controversial moral teachings is also common: 33 percent of young Catholics consider abortion OK for any reason, 43 percent consider homosexual sex not wrong at all (one of few numbers that has changed markedly), and more than 90 percent reject the Church's ban on premarital sex. As the authors conclude, "whatever religious decline that may have happened must have taken place before the 1970s," most likely during the upheaval following the Second Vatican Council and the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical reiterating the Church's longstanding ban on artificial birth control.

Since that time, Catholics' religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don't need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it's OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.

As the above figures suggest, Young Catholic America contains a raft of data. The numbers can be overwhelming, but they're a crucial counterweight to the anecdotes that usually dominate generational profiles and religious journalism. I've contributed anecdotes to these genres myself; in addition, I'm a member of the generation of Catholics under examination here, and I was paid to copyedit this volume. My reflections are not those of a detached, objective reviewer (if such a creature exists).

In writing the book, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his coauthors draw primarily on findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a three-wave survey running from 2002 to 2008 that followed some 3,000 young people from their teenage years into young adulthood. This is the fourth book to result from the study: earlier ones by Smith and various coauthors include Soul Searching, on teens' religious lives; Souls in Transition, on the same group's religious practice in young adulthood; and Lost in Transition, on teens' transition to young adulthood more generally.

Adding color to the abstract statistics are the ways that young Catholics and former Catholics discuss their faith with interviewers. "Jae"—a pseudonym, like all names here—says "there are several reasons" he's not interested in church right now, but overall "it's just easier not to follow a religion." Steve was raised Catholic and briefly became an evangelical, but after studying history and philosophy in college, he is now an agnostic and thinks that religious belief is driven by emotion. Rob says he's Catholic but admits all he means by that is "I believe in God and basically I celebrate Christmas." Maria attends Mass pretty regularly but considers the syncretistic spirit religion of Santeria compatible with Catholicism and believes all religions are basically the same. She's among just twelve interviewees, out of forty-one total who were Catholics as teens, who remained actively connected to the Church as the nsyr ended. To say that such examples highlight the Church's failures in evangelization and catechesis would be an understatement. If future generations of Catholics are anything like this one, the Church in America will experience a decline in this century worse than its decline over the past half-century.

Moreover, assuming recent precedent holds, most of these young Catholics will not change their ways later in adulthood. Unlike Protestants, who tend to increase their church attendance as they age, Catholics usually maintain similar rates of attendance across their lifetime. The ongoing multi-decade decline in Mass attendance in the U.S. is mainly the result not of all Catholics changing their practices, but of older Catholics dying and being replaced by successive generations becoming ever less likely to attend Mass often.

The book's greatest strength is not in providing a snapshot of young Catholics, which is also available from other sources, but in illustrating how their faith evolves through the teenage years to young adulthood. At all life stages, Catholics are less likely than non-Catholics to fall in the most religiously observant group (as measured by frequency of religious service attendance, frequency of personal prayer, and self-reported importance of religious faith). Though the average level of observance declines across all groups as they enter adulthood, highly religious Catholic teens are even more likely to decrease their observance than highly religious non-Catholic teens. About half of all Catholics maintain similar levels of religious practice from late adolescence to early adulthood; however, a large majority (three-quarters) of the changing half becomes less observant.

The factors from the teenage years that predict Catholics' high religiosity later are largely what one would expect: considering faith important, having highly religious Catholic parents and knowing other supportive religious adults, praying alone frequently, reporting personal religious experiences, attending Mass, having religious friends, etc.

One last factor has to do with another facet of parents' religiosity: whether parents identify themselves as traditional, moderate, or liberal Catholics. The young adult children of traditional and moderate Catholics are about three times as likely as children of liberal Catholics to attend Mass weekly, and only half as likely to never attend. I would attribute this to traditional Catholics' greater emphasis on obeying Church teachings (which require going to Mass weekly) and, more speculatively, to their greater efforts to teach their sons and daughters that what the Church proclaims is actually true. Liberal Catholics generally prioritize social justice over points of doctrine, so their children could inherit their moral concerns without inheriting their devotion to God and the Church.

If Young Catholic America has one major shortcoming, it's the lack of direct comparisons between Catholics and other religious groups. Catholics are repeatedly compared either to the U.S. population as a whole or to non-Catholics, an umbrella category that includes evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, "Nones," atheists, and others. I'd prefer comparisons between Catholics, evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and (to see how Christians differ from more secular Americans) Nones. All these groups are large enough for statistics to be meaningful, and Catholics could learn much more from the experiences of evangelicals, in particular, than from the amorphous group "non-Catholics."

Smith and his coauthors set out to analyze, not to advise, the Church, but Catholic priests, educators, and parents who care about young people's faith can draw many lessons from their findings. First, parents and other older adults with strong ties to teens and emerging adults have enormous influence over their faith—probably more than they realize—and should act accordingly. Without close relationships to practicing Catholic adults, typically their parents, Catholic teens are extremely unlikely to remain or become devoted Catholics as young adults. In addition, having just one Catholic parent (typically the mother) is not enough. Having "a committed Catholic father seems to be a necessary [but not sufficient] condition" for young Catholics to remain actively Catholic as adults. Growing up with a devout mom and a skeptical dad may contribute to some young men's belief that faith is something "feminine, and thus to be kept at a distance."

Second, for young people to maintain their faith into adulthood, they must find their faith important in daily life and internalize Catholic doctrines—processes that are guided, again, by parents, other relatives, and role models. Youth group leaders and Catholic school teachers could also contribute to this formation. Third, religious practices such as attending Mass, reading the Bible, and praying regularly exert a strong influence on teens' future religiosity. Once more, parents and other adults can model these practices themselves and urge young people to do the same.

Fourth, Catholic high schools and colleges do not appear to be transmitting the faith to their students very effectively. After the researchers controlled for students' family background, Catholic high schools had "little to no independent influence five years later on those who attended them." The schools did seem to make Catholic students, regardless of background, less likely to totally abandon the faith as young adults, but that's not saying much. The book has less data on Catholic colleges, but the researchers' interviews with several students at Catholic colleges suggest that they make little if any difference in the religious lives of students. Assuming such schools still wish to contribute to their students' religious and spiritual development, they must address this problem along with the grave financial difficulties many are facing.

For practicing Catholics, and many other Christians, Young Catholic America will be a sobering read. Yet there are more signs of hope, it seems to me, than the book's figures would suggest. Let me share a few. Seminary enrollment is at its highest level in the past 20 years, and several traditional religious orders are attracting dozens of aspiring new members a year. Every spring, hundreds of Catholic college graduates sign up for a year or more of serving in relative poverty as volunteers, missionaries, and teachers at needy Catholic schools. Other young Catholics are actively sharing and defending their faith on the web—or on the street, literally, with the recently founded and rapidly expanding group St. Paul Street Evangelization. These Catholics are too atypical to show up in national surveys, but they're apt to have a disproportionate impact on the U.S. Church's future. They are ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them—and in a world of despair, that could go a long way.

Anna Sutherland is the editor of Family-Studies.org, a former junior fellow at First Things, and a freelance writer.

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