The exclusive piece in this issue of OSV Newsweekly (online August 28) on why young Catholics are leaving the Faith presents some staggering numbers: 13 is the typical age at which the young people interviewed said they decided to leave the Church; 42 percent of young Catholic millennials report never having had any kind of Catholic education, either in Catholic schools or religious education programs; and only 13 percent said they were ever likely to return to the Church.
These disheartening numbers, however, point to a trend that’s not so staggering or even all that surprising: that young people are leaving the Faith more rapidly and at a younger age than ever before. The reason for this departure, according to research collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), is primarily because many youths strongly believe that faith and science are incompatible. That conviction, the research indicates, coincides with a prevalent problem of the last 50 years: the lack of demonstrably effective faith formation of Catholics, young and old.
Few people today, despite the best efforts of many committed priests and catechists, would deny that catechesis is a recurring pain point for the Church. The number of those enrolled in Catholic education is in steep decline. And few Church leaders — often overworked and understaffed — pause to ask a basic question: Is our inherited model for parish-based religious education effective in today’s culture?
The results of CARA’s research, as well as other anecdotal evidence, would seem to indicate that the answer is “no” — the typical model of one hour of religious education each week for a half-year (approximately) is not sufficient enough to educate young Catholics in society today. Are we willing to confront that our model (processes and systems) for handing on the Faith might need a significant overhaul?
Reflecting on a similar exodus in Ireland, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has remarked that “young Irish people are among the most catechized and the least evangelized.”
For the answer to this, we can turn to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he indicated that the most primary and frequent teaching Catholics should hear is: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (No. 164). This central teaching bears repeating regularly to all Catholics, even those who attend Mass or are enrolled in education. And all Catholics need to be given the opportunity to choose it for themselves.
With Pope Francis’ prompting, we may do well to discern the following: How are those of us in ministry providing an encounter with Jesus Christ to every person? How does our witness as Catholics in the community — whether married, single, consecrated or ordained — inspire others to want what we “have”? How is our Church encouraging us to actively choose to follow Christ in the Catholic Church? What is our society today teaching that is so alluring to young people, and how can we, as a Church, best respond with the truth?
The issues of evangelization and catechesis in the Church today are big ones that deserve a big prescription, and deserve to be discussed and discerned at the parish, diocesan, national and even universal level. But, as in all things, before we can offer solutions, we first must acknowledge that there’s a problem.
Editorial Board: Scot Landry, chief mission officer; Greg Willits, editorial director; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor