“By listening to young people, the Church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world.”  Pope Francis


“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 

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?”

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 injured 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.

There is much to be learned from the research into why young people have, and continue to, leave the catholic church.  Perhaps most important for “pastoral leaders” such as myself, are the two primary questions which the authors present for our consideration:

“Do we know who they are – the depth of their life stories – do we know them by name?”

“Do we miss these individuals now that they are gone?”

Honestly, there are some young people who have left the church that I know by name.   There are even a few whose life stories I know in depth.  But they are the rare exception.  It saddens me to admit that, for the great majority, I know nothing specific about their motivations.  This is even true for my own young family members who have left the church.  I don’t really know why.  I’ve never asked.

If I’ve not had a desire to seek out the reasons for my own family leaving the church, what is the likelihood of my engaging this conversation with others?  Coming to this realization,  I am ashamed.  One would think that a catholic priest would certainly have looked into it, would have done something, to address an issue of such paramount importance to the church.  But I have not.  If I push further by asking, “why not?,” my initial sense is that I don’t want to hear “the obvious,” especially from those whom I love so dearly.

“The obvious,” is, well, all the reasons cited above by the injured, the drifters, and the dissenters.  I’ve known these young people since their birth.  It would be heartbreaking to hear their rejection of the church because of ‘meaningless rules and rituals,’ or worse, because they have an active resistance to a church that refuses to respect them as persons because of their disagreement over issues like birth control, gay marriage, and/or the church’s unwavering stance regarding doctrines like heaven and hell.

And yet, these are precisely the same issues which I have found myself at odds with the church.  And to be clear, I have not compromised my beliefs nor is there a place of reconciliation where what I believe and what the church teaches as required tenets of faith, can amicably meet.

Where does that leave us?  The young people who have left the church have authentic reasons for having done so.  I find myself agreeing with many of their reasons.  Therefore, I am faced with a dilemma.  Should I leave the church?
One could say that for me to prove myself credible, yes, I should leave the church.

On the other hand, it could be argued that by remaining in the church, I have a better chance of speaking up for those dissenting voices, perhaps even having an impact on church teaching in the future.

I wonder what young people would say?  Then again, since I’ve never taken the time to ask them what they believe about the church, why would I expect them to care at all about what I think?

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