Has the Catholic Church lost its mojo with young adults in America? That’s what some are suggesting after a new study was released earlier this week. The Barna survey asked young Americans aged 18-29 their opinions on religion. For the Catholic perspective, it polled those “who attended a Catholic church at some point during their teenage years.” The poll included large amounts of non-practicing and secular young adults, along with faithful practicing Catholics.
The study showed that 60% of young adults believe the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality are “outdated”. Similar data came up when they were polled about a Roman Catholic Mass: 57% of all respondents said that Mass could be “a boring obligation”. Given the lopsided majorities from this data, does the Catholic Church need to abandon its social teachings and completely revamp its religious services?
In short, no. Like many things, the Barna survey needs to be looked at in context. For example, the Barna survey lumped in everyone together that expressed any sort of “misgivings” about the Catholic Church’s positions on social issues. But a mere 12% of young adults said it’s “completely true” that the church’s teachings on social issues are “out of date”. Others may have reservations about one particular area of what the church teaches (for example, contraception), but are not troubled by any of the other social positions the Church has taken, and do not believe the Catholic Church needs to become socially liberal to suit their needs.
Many inactive Catholics are also unaware exactly what the Catholic Church teaches on social issues. Would you say a church that is against all forms of birth control, wants to ban stem cell research, teaches that women are inferior to men, believes in young-earth creationism, hates gay people, says human sexuality is solely for reproductive purposes, and believes all gays are going to hell needs to “get with the times”? The overwhelming majority of people would say yes. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, it does not teach any of those things. But unfortunately for the Catholic Church, there is a big perception out there right now that this is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches. Part of the problem is what is wrongly being said about the Catholic Church from the secular media and anti-Catholic celebrities. They control what message people hear. Another part of the problem is Catholic catechism itself. There is a communications breakdown in what is being taught, and even many practicing Catholics don’t even understand Catholic theology correctly. Still, among young Catholics who are religiously active, only around one-third (37%) raised some level of concern about the church’s teachings on birth control, let alone the church’s teachings on social issues as a whole.
One issue where critics of the Catholic Church say the Church needs to change is its refusal to ordain women. While a majority of young Catholics are not in favor of ordaining women, a large minority is. The study found that just under half (45%) of young Catholics say it bothers them “that the Church does not ordain women as priests.” So if the Church began admitting female priests over night, would it bring those lapsed Catholics back into the pews? Hardly. The Barna survey also found that just 14% feel strongly about this. Interestingly enough though, more active Catholics who go to Church on Sunday say it is an “important consideration” (13%) versus non-practicing Catholics (just 9% believe it’s an “important consideration” to have female priests). The remaining 91% of lapsed Catholics are indifferent or complacent on the issue, and won’t be coming back to Mass anytime soon, female priests or not.
Perhaps the biggest issue hurting the Catholic Church’s effectiveness with young adults is not its type of Mass or its traditional teachings on social issues, but the damage done from sexual abuse scandals. For example, among all those ages 18-29 who have a Catholic background, 43% say the “priest abuse scandals have made me question my faith”. For those who have quit attending church, 57% cited it as a “stumbling block” for them. Another surprising result is that those who were forced to live in a Catholic environment all week (rather than those, like myself, who attended public schools and were only in a Catholic environment on Sundays) tend to have more of a backlash against Catholicism. The numbers are very troubling. Among young adults who had been raised in a Catholic school, 65% said that Church teaching on sexuality is “outdated” and 61% said that Mass attendance could be a “boring obligation”. It might just be the Catholic Church has been its own worst enemy in this area, and its way of marketing Catholicism at Catholic schools in the past has created a resentment from Catholic alumni.
In some ways, the results of the Barna study actually offer good news for Catholics, because they show that even when Catholics become inactive and no longer practice their faith, they still maintain a “Catholic identity” more than lapsed protestants do. When the numbers were compared with 18-29 year olds who had attended a protestant church at some point in their lives, the Barna Group found some startling differences. Protestants were more likely than Catholics to say they dropped out of attending church (61% vs. 56%), doubted their faith (41% vs. 33%), and considered rejecting their parents’ faith (35% vs. only 25% for Catholics). And for all the anti-Catholic bias in the media continually claiming the Catholic Church needs to be more like protestants to connect with people, the results showed otherwise. Nearly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics said they have been “significantly frustrated” by their faith (51% vs. 49%, respectively) and that they are less spiritual now than at age 15 (31% vs. 29%). Growing secularism is clearly a problem among all religions, regardless of what they teach and how they practice.
As I’ve noted before as Chicago Catholic Examiner, the biggest evidence that socially liberal and hip n’ trendy Christianity won’t bring more people to Church is what goes on at the churches themselves. Christian denominations like the Episcopalian Church U.S.A., the Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America have “gotten with the times” and abandoned traditional moral teachings to ordain gay bishops, support liberal divorce laws, accept abortion, etc., etc., but a quick look at their churches shows they are losing members in far greater numbers than the Catholic Church, and have the biggest problems from rapidly aging and mostly white congregations.
Conversely, my parish I go to has a pastor that is very outspoken about the Catholic Church’s social teachings and has very long and elaborate liturgies that can sometimes go on for over an hour and a half. Yet the first thing thing visitors are quick to note when they parish the parish is the “large numbers of young families and small children” in attendance. Other parishes three times the size of mine sent 2 or 3 teenagers to the March for Life, whereas eleven people came from my parish this year. Large Catholic Cathedrals across America had 3 or 4 teenagers sign up to make the trek out to San Diego last year for the ByzanTEEN Youth Rally, whereas my parish sent nineteen. Visitors are quick to note that the tiny amount of pews in my parish, wondering if it can sit more than 60 people, then are shocked to learn our first ever Vacation Bible School and Theology on Tap had around 30-40 children, teens and young adults participating.
As a final note, look no further than what the President of the Barna Group had to say about the results of his organization’s survey. He noted there’s no reason to believe the results show a massive dissatisfaction with what Catholicism teaches and how the faith is practiced, saying: “Even when we look at a fairly defined demographic segment like young adult Catholics, we find a great deal of differences. While many young Catholics are at odds with Catholic teaching on matters of birth control, only about one-quarter are very discontent and many do not at all share these perceptions.”
So what can the Catholic Church learn from these numbers? Perhaps it simply needs to learn how to sell Catholicism to young people.I can certainly understand why so many young adults believe a Sunday Mass can be “boring”, because I felt that way myself when I went to church on Sundays during High School. The problem isn’t so much that the Mass itself is boring, but that we are bored by the way its being presented. The Mass is there to glorify God, not to entertain parishioners, but too many Catholic parishes simply go through the motions of a Sunday Mass and put no life or energy into the effort. Likewise, people experience God in different ways. Some people and families would prefer the much more reverent and ritualistic format of the Tridentine Mass. The fact the old Tridentine Mass is becoming more and more available at Catholic dioceses throughout America is a welcome sign. The fact some Tridentine Mass adherents view any other type of Catholic liturgy as totally illegitimate and false Catholicism is not. They need to understand that other Catholics may reach God easier through modern post-Vatican II masses, or be drawn to the Holy Spirit-filled pentecostal-like Christianity of Charismatic Catholicism, or — like myself — find Orthodox-style eastern-rite Catholic liturgies are the most fulfilling. A truly universal Church needs to find all ways to reach people with the same message. More and more young people are also coming around to realizing the Catholic Church was right when Catholic clergy decried abortion on demand and the devaluing of human life in America. Catholicism, presented right, can deeply empower young Americans. It’s time to evaluate how to do that.