where have all the children gone?

Let me address this head on: I have a sincere disaffection for polls, polls of any kind. My animus for polls runs deep, so much so that any lawmaker who would propose legislation to proscribe them would have my full though admittedly completely inconsequential support.

Trust me!

Trust me!

At the heart of my opposition to polls is the reliance on the statistical pseudo-science so ardently supported, it appears to me, by charlatans selling pure unadulterated snake-oil. Some of course are easier on the palate, but all are much too difficult to swallow and seldom benefit anyone except to line said seller’s pockets.

Polls are like sots, incapable of standing upright or walking a straight line; they either lean one way or slant another, preconditioned to generate predetermined results from preselected respondents—fodder for those whose sole function is to convince that the emperor is fully clothed.

Disregarding the political swill that is fed into the public trough on a daily basis, the results of two national studies (polls) conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) have recently been released for further indigestion. Keep the Alka-Seltzer handy.

These two studies/polls were conducted to determine why young Catholics are leaving the faith. The first study surveyed a random, national sample of young people, ages 15 to 25, who had been raised Catholic but no longer self-identified as such. The second surveyed a random sample of self-identified Catholics, ages 18 and older, focusing on matters of religion and science. The conclusions derived from both studies were made and reported in a 4-page article in OSV by Mark Gray.1

As previously observed, the studies/polls are textbook examples of how to turn stuporous assumptions into besotted results with pickled conclusions.

The report by OSV’s Mark Gray begins with this introduction which should be read with great care:

“Young Catholics are leaving the Faith. Multiple national surveys indicate that only about two-thirds or fewer millennials (those born in 1982 or later) who were raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults.”

Note how this introduction leads the reader toward a false understanding and a probable misreading. The first sentence sets the unwary reader up for the bad news that is sure to follow. The next raises the level of concern stating that “multiple national surveys indicate”—leading the reader to assume certainly more than two surveys which undoubtedly surveyed a large number (a number never provided.) Then the kicker which gives the reader the distinct impression that it must be really bad news: “only about two-thirds or fewer millennials who were raised Catholic”—OMG, that is absolutely terrible news! Dare I read more? But wait! What is this: “remain Catholic”? Two-thirds remain Catholic? But… but…

In other words, Mark, what you are really telling us is that only about one-third leave the faith. True, that is far too high but why the scam artist come-on? It makes the rest of the article highly suspect, and after reading the entire article several times with highlighter in hand, this reader remains skeptical.

Perhaps most problematic are the conclusions that are derived from the scant data provided in the report. There is however sufficient information to determine that the conclusions that were made failed to identify the root causes for the increasing number of young people leaving the faith.

To be fair to CARA, the OSV report fails to provide access to the full results from either study further reducing confidence in the conclusions reported. That being said, the results that OSV did report are both informative and worrying, notwithstanding the inadequate and misleading conclusions derived.

Perhaps the most relevant information provided comes from a single paragraph:

“The interviews with youth and young adults who had left the Catholic Faith revealed that the typical age for this decision to leave was made at 13. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 percent, said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the faith before the age of 10. Those who leave are just as likely to be male as they are female, and their demographics generally mirror those of all young Catholics their age. So why are they leaving?” 

A reporter once asked Willie Sutton, an infamous bank robber, why he robbed banks and he replied, “because that’s where the money is.” Asking Sutton why he did what he did was puerile and provided no insight as to the root causes of his criminal behavior. It did sell magazines however.

And here is where the CARA studies leaves orbit. Asking those who have left the faith why they left is equally fatuous and fails to lead us to the why.  It does make for some mildly annoying juvenile responses which I suppose some like the author find somehow informative.

CARA interviewed former Catholics and asked them an open-ended question “What are the reasons that explain why you are no longer Catholic?” The responses reveal a level of ignorance but little more. Here are a few of the responses:

“Because I grew up realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”

“Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”

“I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”

In another study conducted by the Pew Research Center, they report a variety of reasons why young people are leaving Christianity, including:

  • Learning about evolution when I went away to college
  • Religion is the opiate of the people
  • Rational thought makes religion go out the window
  • Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator
  • I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it

There are many more but no need to belabor the point. It all comes down to a level of understanding that is painfully absent in our youth and young people concerning God and his Church.

But the question remains unanswered: why are they leaving?

OSV’s Mark Gray provides an observation, laying the primary reason for the increasing exodus of young people from the faith on a decline in Catholic school attendance. While this may certainly be a factor, Gray wastes far too much space on the declining numbers receiving a Catholic education and the increasing numbers of those who see no relationship between faith and reason or compatibility between science and religion.

While important, the decline in attendance is a symptom rather than the cause of the infection.

Bishop Robert Barron remarks:

“I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of those who responded to the survey, but the reasons they offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling. This is to say, any theologian, apologist, or evangelist worth his salt should be able easily to answer them. And this has led me to the conclusion that ‘we have met the enemy and it is us.’2

While I agree with Bishop Barron that the reasons are uncompelling, I respectfully disagree with who he holds responsible for rectifying the growing problem of our children leaving the faith.  He says in closing, “My cri de coeur is that teachers, catechists, theologians, apologists, and evangelists might wake up to this crisis and do something about it.”

I hold Bishop Barron in the highest regard but his passionate appeal is misdirected, aiming at those who can and should be actively involved in any solution but teachers, catechists, theologians, apologists, and evangelists are secondary, not primary in any corrective action to be made.

The question as to why so many are leaving is important no doubt but before we can hope to discover the ‘why’ we must first know the ‘when’ and the ‘who’.  The problem didn’t begin with millennials (those born in 1982 or later.) They are but the most current to be infected with a disease first contracted nearly sixty years ago.

The genesis of the infection first arose in the 1960s with the confluence of two events: the convening of the Second Vatican Council and the launch of the Great Society. While neither promised to effect great and lasting change, the unexpected and unintended consequences that occurred as a result of these two seminal events were nothing short of catastrophic.

On the face of it, the objectives of the two events, to most observers, seemed to be unrelated in nearly every possible way: one considered traditionally conservative and the other progressively liberal, one religious and the other secular, one global in scope, the other geographically limited. But it was not the onset of these two separate and distinct events that created the pandemic but the confluence of their output which, like co-reactant epoxy resin, altered the course of human history, resulting in the moral desuetude that exists today.

There is far more to be said on this subject but far more than need or can be written here.

For all the good and needed, even necessary changes, for the Catholic Church that resulted from the Second Vatican Council, there were serious unintended consequences.

From many quarters and especially in America there was an overwhelming sense of release from the rigid, hard-bound strictures long-held by the Church and demanded of its members. Finally, the Church was moving into the modern age—despite and in spite of Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae—and Catholics were quick to take advantage of this apparent relaxation of the strict rules of conduct imposed on them for two millennia.

The complete failure of the magisterium to address these misperceptions directly and with the necessary seriousness required resulted in the false belief (heresy) that Catholicism was now self-defining. Catholics could now decide for themselves what it meant to be catholic. Catholics were now free to accept or ignore what had heretofore been doctrinally and dogmatically imposed. The Commandments were now suggestions, moral law optional, and natural law suspect. Free at last, free at last, thank Vatican II, we are free at last!

Those who came of age then (of which I admit fraternity) quickly saw this as an opportunity to define their own relationship with God, if they wanted to do so; many chose to simply ignore God because there were no longer any serious consequences (no heaven or hell) of much concern. Like religion, God was now self-defining as were his laws. It was indeed a heady time for young Catholics.

Yet the changes that came about within the Catholic Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council would most likely have been far less reaching had it not been for the launching of the liberal and progressive policies that began with the launching of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

The growing sense of entitlement and secular progressive attitudes engendered and encouraged the sexual revolution of the sixties resulting in a near total moral collapse within American society.

The landmark and disastrous 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion precipitated an even faster rate of decline in compliance and acceptance of moral and natural law, respect for the sacredness of the human person made in the image and likeness of God, and the belief that every life, from conception to natural death should be valued and protected.

That generation—my generation—as a result became ever more distracted by the secular and less attracted to the holy. Even if one continued to believe in God, no one really cared because there didn’t seem to be any reason to be seriously concerned.

What was happening during the sixties and seventies was a steady erosion in faith and a turning inward to the self. As Joseph Sobran accurately describes it:

“Being self-centered leads inevitably to hating others who are obstacles to selfish desires. What is ‘natural’ in fallen human nature easily descends to the diabolical. And our modern, post-Christian, liberal culture treats the self-centered life as normal, rejecting abortion laws as tyrannical impositions on what has been called ‘the imperial self.’”3

Even as the general population was turning away from God and inward toward themselves, many clergy were following, or in some cases, leading the charge toward this new moral order. For the most part however, the clergy in American churches simply fell silent, and their congregations lost faith and quickly became unchurched. Catholic clergy, never admirers of ’fire and brimstone’ preaching, picked up the liberal mantra of tolerance and resigned themselves to accepting immoral conduct on the part of their congregations.

Thus, as a result, we are witness to the leadership of the USCCB euphemistically dancing around the serious issue of same-sex unions officiated by the second highest office holder in America who sardonically calls himself a Catholic. Rather than publicly denouncing Vice-president Biden for his insolence and obvious disdain for the church he professes to be a member (sounds like a raspberry to me) they proffered neither punishment nor absolution.

For Catholics the message is clear (with apologies to Barry Goldwater):

“Intolerance in defense of righteousness is no virtue. And tolerance in the pursuit of immorality is no vice.”

Most of us who aged into adulthood—seldom gracefully and often reluctantly–in the sixties and seventies eventually found ourselves with families. Having been infected with a virulent distaste for authority and authoritarian rules, we consciously or unconsciously readily infected our progeny.

I for one must admit to rarely darkening the entrance to any church and giving little notice to God. Religious education was never a priority, to the point that there was none. Although baptized Catholic, that was much the extent of my children’s religious upbringing. While they eventually and completely on their own received the Sacraments and were married in the Catholic Church, they have over time walked away from active participation in their faith.

Their children have fared even less and have little or no understanding of God, faith, the Catholic Church, and all that Catholics should and ought to know and believe.

So why are young people leaving the faith? Don’t ask them because they really have no idea of what that means. If you really wish to know why young people are leaving, don’t look to a poll for answers, look in a mirror. The answer will be staring back at you. I don’t particularly like who I see. Do you?

1 Mark M. Gray, Young People are Leaving The Faith: Here’s Why, Our Sunday Visitor, August 28, 2016, pp 9-12.
2 Bishop Robert Barron, Apologists, catechists, theologians: Wake up!, Aleteia, September 1, 2016.
3 Joseph Sobran, Subtracting Christianity, FGF Books, June 20, 2016.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

1 Comment

  1. Deacon Chuck,

    I have not had the time to respond to your writing for a while but rest assured it is always food for thought even when I disagree. First of all I want to pass along condolences for the loss of your dog It is amazing how important pets are in our lives.

    I read with interest about your concern for why young people are leaving the faith. I am not of the opinion that Vatican 2 or LBJ have anything to do with it. Unintended consequences are part of every decision in human history and it might be that the good that came out of those instances in history far outweigh the bad. I invite you to not get discouraged by them but to consider how many people might be drawn to the church by acts of inclusiveness.such as Vatican 2. I know many priest who cite it as a pivotal point in their decision to enter the priesthood.

    You might not be as big a fan of Archbishop Kenneth Untenner as I am, but I find the sentiments in his Romero Prayer to be a guiding light on my Journey. I am not the master builder but a worker and I might not see the fruits of my labor in this lifetime. Jesus himself did not see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime, but he did not give up hope even in his time of dispair. My job is to plant and nourish seeds and trust the creator to see them to fruition.

    I heard a priest say once that the first and most important act of spreading the faith is not to preach but to listen. We can invite people to walk our faith with a simple acts kindness, love and respect. It is not ours to decide who accepts the invitation. Anyways, I just wanted to check in and let you know you I still enjoy your column and I pray for your soul too.. Take care.

    John C. Hancock

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