What role does the church play, if any, to twenty-something Catholics in the United States?

This was the question that a group of Catholic thinkers, writers, pastors, lay ministers, and other church leaders attempted to answer this weekend at a conference held at Fordham University called, Lost? Twenty-Somethings and the Catholic Church.  

The conference began with a panel of academics offering statistics on young adults and the church, trends that can easily be seen in many parishes across the country. Young adult Catholics aren’t going to Mass in sizable numbers, and when asked, fewer than ever before identify as Catholic. Panelists then sought to explain why so many young adults are leaving the church and offer ideas as to what might be done to stop the trend.

The Lost? website will post transcripts and video soon, but in the meantime, some items worth noting:

  • The church should avoid the temptation to become a political power player. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that young adults are turned off from the church when it appears to be shilling for a particular political party. Minor gains in policy may come at a huge cost: losing a generation of Catholics from both sides of the political spectrum.
  • Race and ethnicity remain sensitive and critical challenges for the Catholic Church, especially with the rapidly growing Latino population. Young Latinos are taught a sense of ownership and belonging in their parishes that is not fostered and developed in traditionally Euro-centric parishes. As a result, these young adults sometimes leave the church altogether when their talents are underutilized in mixed parishes.
  • The split between church leaders and young adults on issues of gender and sexuality is growing. Young people are more likely to support same-sex marriage and female ordination than their older counterparts and the hierarchy, and many cite these issues as reasons they don’t feel at home in the church. Young adults won’t support any institution where they feel that any group of people is not fully welcome and included.

There were many reasons to lose hope, but there were also some bright spots. For all the stats about why young adults loathe and leave the church, some twenty-somethings still participated in the audience. The examples of why some leave the church were answered with stories of why some stay. And while some of the conversation was disheartening and morose, some was full of energy and enthusiasm for the future (America's Jim Martin moderated an excellent panel that offered many concrete ideas to keep young adult Catholics in the church).

The challenges to make the faith and the church relevant and important to the next generation of Catholics are great, but perhaps not quite insurmountable. The conference itself is testimony that some church leaders are excited and eager to begin a conversation, and that in itself is hopeful. But even if a place is set, will disaffected and ambivalent twenty-somethings take their places at the table? Are church leaders speaking the right language, and if not, are they willing to learn a new vocabulary? Is the church marketing its unique value proposition to young adults in a clear and compelling manner? That is, what does the church offer young adults that they cannot get elsewhere?

There were few answers to these questions, and even fewer young voices to offer thoughtful analysis and opinion, but they were being asked, which is a welcomed start. The church is running out of time to retain this maturing generation, and by extension, future generations. For the church to lose the talent, energy, inspiration, and imagination of young adults would be scandalous, but all’s not lost. Yet.

Comments

Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 12:19pm
Last comment on this: this is not a white vs. latino vs. asian issue.

I live in the SouthWest and the latino kids that I see at the parishes are just a poorly taught on the faith as the white kids - there may be more of a sense of community to some degree, but it still does not fortify them against the relativistic/anti-Christian popular culture.

ron chandonia | 1/31/2011 - 9:34am
It seems this conference discovered what its organizers hoped to find.  If these are the principal reasons for the disaffection of young adult Catholics, particularly reason #3, then 20-somethngs ought to be flocking to Episcopal churches.  Father Cutie's followers notwithstanding, I don't see such a trend.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 7:51am
*Correction to my previous post: it's Colleen Carroll Campbell, not the other way around.
Vince Killoran | 1/31/2011 - 9:23am
This is a great intiative that should be welcomed into all diocese across the country.  The truth will be hard for some to hear-and it will be a complex one (i.e., monocausal reasons such as Brett's "bad parentling" argument seem to miss the mark).   Dave de la Fuente and P.J. Johnson's comments underscore the need for sound sociological research and listening to people's stories.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 7:46am
I was one of the handful of twenty-somethings to attend the Conference, and the points that struck me were a little different:

1. At least two panelists decried "abysmal" liturgy. The liturgy ought to be celebrated reverently, with good songs, good preaching, and good community. To that end, there were not any comments identifying criteria for "good" liturgy. Is it high liturgy? It is a Charismatic mass? Is it the Mass of Paul VI without the new translation, or with it? I might be one of a few Millennials who wants something leaning towards high liturgy, and I don't mind the "new" translations. My criteria would be: the mass should be about Jesus.

2. Having talked about liturgy, community life is important. My friend Jen Sawyer talked about "church shopping", searching for a parish where she can find roots and involvement and a community that welcomes her as a twenty-something. That she has not found one in the NYC area over the past two years ought to be troubling. At least one other panelist recounted horror stories of sorts, where a recent graduate joined a parish, asked his parish priest how he could get involved, and received this response: "I don't know." For those Millennials who are very much devoted to Catholicism, are they even finding a welcome in the parishes that they wish to be a part of?

3. Catechesis and evangelization: we need it. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I don't know if I could identify whether catechesis or evangelization ought to come first, but efforts in both are lacking. I personally would decry abysmal Catholic education. I went to a Catholic high school, and 90% of my classmates started drifting away from the Church during high school because our liturgies were abysmal and our education in the faith was terrible.

On Millennials and sex, Donna Freitas noted that those Millennial Catholics who are engaged in the hook-up culture are rather disappointed with it. Colleen Campbell Carroll pointed out, one cannot forget about the "minority" of Millennial Catholics who are not all about hooking up, and are striving to live according to Church teaching there.

I appreciated the distinction that when we talk about twenty-somethings who appear to be "lost", we ought to recognize that we are speaking primarily about Anglo twenty-somethings. Here, I would echo Mr. O'loughlin's point that race and ethnicity remain a challenge to Euro-centric parishes. Millennial Latino Catholics (I am using twenty-something and Millennial interchangeably) have different concerns, and may be more committed to Catholicism in the first place as part of their cultural roots. But where was the talk about the Filipinos? Fifteen years ago, my family's suburban parish had maybe 5 Filipino families. Now, the parish is overflowing with Filipinos and their kids. I am a Filipino-American who has seen a number of Filipino Catholic lay communities successfully engage twenty-somethings in ministry and in living out the faith-it looks something like pastoral juvenil. But it is a struggle for some of these Filipinos to be involved in parish life. This is not always the case for Filipinos, but it can happen.

Finally, I would like to say that I wish that there were more "twenty-somethings" who spoke. Not all of us are lost. And at that, we are all over the political spectrum. It would have been nice to hear more from twenty-somethings at different points in the spectrum, just to show that we too have different perspectives on what the Church is doing right and doing wrong.

Having said all of this, I as a twenty-something have a lot to ponder about what I have heard in the Conference.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 1:52am
Hopefully, this new Mass translation (and music settings) can bring back the structure and  beauty to the liturgy that appeals to all people - young/old, Catholic/non-Catholic...
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 1:24am
Childred lose the faith often because of the lax or even bad faith of their parents - a gerneration of liturgical dancers, popular music, and an increasing feminization of the parish life has driven away all of the young men (and many young women) that I know.

When church is nothing but rehashed, warmed-over platitudes and political correctness that dominates the popular culture, there is really no need to even go.  Nothing stands out, there were no people who represented the salt of the earth.

I only came back - after years aways during college and after - when I walked into a Latin mass by mistake...that is Church, that is Catholic.  This distinction and this fight against the crass consumer culture and liberal relativism does not have to be only in latin, however, it does have to be true to the faith in form and word.

The latin mass community I go to now is packed to the rafters with young families - and more impressive - many, many single men and potential priests.
PJ Johnston | 1/30/2011 - 11:35pm
It sounds like the conference organizers simply interpreted the phenomenon of youth disaffection in terms of the best, most methodologically-sound recent sociological research about religious affiliation in America, Putnam and Campbell's "American Grace" (http://socialcapital.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/young-americans-dropping-out-of-religion-other-american-grace-findings/).  With regard to young people, Putnam and Campbell found that people Gen X and younger who have left the practice of religion have typically done so because they were coming to an age in which highly-politicized conservative forms of Christianity were the only public face of religion available in the media and they were liberal on honosexuality; since the onset of this phenomenon in the early 90s, this tendency has been self-replicating as young liberals have left religion and conservatives have become more entrenched.  Other than baseline social liberalism on issues of gender and sexuality, there are no statistically-significant differences in the levels of religiosity of the two groups (those who have stayed and those who have left); the whole difference seems to be a combination of opting out or being driven out for holding liberal views.  I'm in the older part of this cohort, and as I went from childhood to adolescence, I saw every single one of my non-conservative Christian friends leave the faith after a protracted struggle where they were put under tremendous social pressure to conform to a conservative social agenda or stop claiming to be a Christian.  I don't know why I stay myself, but reading Putnam and Campbell was consciousness-raising for me as I realized that my theological elders had sold me and my companions down river - it was worth more to them to attain ideological purity on a conservative social agenda than it was to keep an entire generation of young people within the Church.  We simply do not matter.

I actually started a blog on my efforts to remain Catholic recently (http://lonelygoth.wordpress.com), but I am too busy with my thesis to do much to maintain it, and it is greatly compromised by my hopeless apathy about finding any niche of the Catholic Church in which I have any chance of being accepted.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 7:22pm
David,

The largest concentrations of Filipinos are around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all over the NY/NJ area. To ask what they (we) want is an interesting question... From the Filipinos I have gotten to know, they mainly want to ''serve the Lord'' and love their families. For some it means being good parents and praying frequently. For others (and especially for those involved in the Charismatic Renewal or other movements), they really want to serve God and the Church and the world.

Bill mentioned that Colleen Carroll Campbell (I think I got it right this time) has a history of fictionalizing research. That I didn't know, but even if this is true, I would still like to suggest from my (perhaps limited as a twenty-something) experience that this ''minority'' is indeed real, albeit small. I say the following knowing that it is contrived, but I have in mind not simply those young adults one may find at Ave Maria and Steubenville, but also those from Fordham and BC, from Harvard and Yale... and in the latter cases, the combination of values that such Millennials hold would be a sort of hybrid on the sociopolitical spectrum. I guess I'm just trying to say that this is one model of Millennial Catholics among many other models, and we as members of the Church ought to recognize all models that strive to live the Gospel authentically.

Jeff stated that most of his friends who are still active have remained so because of retreats or youth groups unrelated to parishes. I would agree: I think things are really happening in the various movements that move beyond (or span a variety of) parishes. Catholic Underground, Charismatics, Neo-cats, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, the Catholic Worker, and in some cases, college campus ministry engage Millennials in profound ways. At Fordham (I graduated last May), we enjoyed great liturgies, great preaching, great retreats, and many communal meals. It makes me wonder if the future will involve less emphasis of identifying with geographic parishes, and more with these general movements.

I appreciate you all welcoming my contributions. I've read In All Things for a few years now, but never got around to commenting.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 2:58pm
Interesting analysis.  I have to agree that the reasons/causes/solutions are complex and multifaceted.  I know just as many kids my age (late 20s) who were drilled in Catholic doctrine who have drifted from the Church as kids whose parents barely bothered.  I think it has more to do with the link between the parish and the school so that unless you have kids involved in teh parish school, you're barely noticed.  Most of my friends still active in the faith have remained connected via groups wholly unrelated to parishes, such as Charis retreats, and various youth groups that span parishes.

  I do agree something has to be done about the liturgy, especially the preaching, which seems uniformly abysmal.  It seems like some preaching doesn't even bother to come close to touching the lives of listeners.  Full disclosure - I tend to lean more toward "high liturgy" as well; the songs sung at the Sun. Evening "youth-oriented" Mass in my local parish are absolutely un-singable.  Yet I love going to the 11:00 AM Episcopal service with some friends of ours where everyone (it seems) belts out some of the most beautiful hymns 200 years old.  I do fear we've lost something by trying to "update" everything.  Again, that's not the sole cause, by any stretch.
Bill Mazzella | 1/31/2011 - 2:53pm
Brett,

If you are concerned about evidence then you should not cite a Latin Mass filled to the rafters as proof that this is the way to go. In fact this group hardly comprises one tenth of the population if that. In the regular parishes were as few in number as the Latin Mass community you would have lines blocks long of people waiting to get in. So give us a break. 

Somebody quoted Collenn Carroll Campbell as stating that young people want orthodoxy. Campbell has a history of referring to fictionalize research. She also belongs to the Ethics and Public Policy Center which caters to rich Catholics who have mostly made money toting the conservative views while being totally partisan in politics. The Ethics and Public Policy Center has been a great polarizer in the Church.

Last and most importantly on this topic. Young people are not attracted to the church because they are not edified by the behavior of too many who do go to church. I am talking about the Sermon on the Mount not any high falutin liturgy. It might be as simple as that.  
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 12:45pm
Stop trying to bait me, vince.  There is plenty of evidence for such shifting ideology - tons in fact.  Looking at the big picture is part of addressing these big problems and should not be avoided.
Vince Killoran | 1/31/2011 - 12:32pm
"[T]he effects ideological relativism and solipsism of the baby boomer generation and their leadership in the church that has lost so many of its young."

Is there any evidence to back this claim? Let's read and listen a little more-quick answers to this problem don't seem particularly useful.
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 1/31/2011 - 12:01pm
Fordham is to be congratulated!
As in their previous conference on the "hook up" generation, trhey are interested  in bringing together scholars trying to grapple with events on the ground and not the preconceived ideas of what some would wish for.
I look forward to the printingo f transcripts and hope that others will go to their website and read them as well - and take them seriously.
Anonymous | 1/31/2011 - 11:54am
My comment was not about "bad parenting," it was on the effects ideological relativism and solipsism of the baby boomer generation and their leadership in the church that has lost so many of its young.

Combine this with a general trend in the population at large towards spiritualism and radical individualism that is the antithesis of Catholicism, then it is easy to see why there are falling numbers.

This is not about sociology, it is about ideas that effect all American youth and their out look.

(the recent papers on "Moral Theraputic Deism" also sould be considered)