There has been much discussion of the recent Pew study that showed how many Americans – including Catholics – have changed their faith tradition from the one in which they grew up. Notably, Catholics have shown no appreciable difference in abandoning the faith of their childen compared to Protestants.
Our Sunday Visitor decided to ask some Catholic leaders to comment about the findings of this study and what can be done to halt the exodus of Catholics away from the Church. Here are a few of the comments made:
Fact: Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48 percent) left Catholicism before reaching age 18.
Robert McCarty, executive director, National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
What this says about the Church’s ability to meet the needs of youth: When I hear this result, I wonder how many of those kids left because their parents left. I am going to guess that many of these kids were mirroring their parents and if their parents weren’t involved in church, I think it is a pretty good bet that the kids are not going to be involved. My take is that we have not engaged our parishioners the way we are challenged to do so.
What the Church can do to retain young people: The Church needs to have a more intentional outreach, not just to teenagers, but to the family. We have to engage parents, because if we engage them, we engage children and then we will retain them into their adult years.
Mr. McCarty hits the nail on the proverbial head here. The amount of time and energy spent on youth ministry in the Church is staggering, but the inconvenient truth is that it has little impact on keeping kids Catholic. I do not believe that this is the fault of youth ministers, who often work heroically to evangelize our youth. The problem is more fundamental: these kids often live with parents who minimally practice their faith and do little to ensure that their children do. This is like expecting the youth minister to come to bat in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and down by five and win the game with one swing. Parents must be an integral part of a child’s faith formation, and without the parents’s support, the children are unlikely to continue to practice the faith, no matter how great the youth program is. And adult education is not enough: we need more adult evangelization, even towards those who attend Mass regularly.
Fact: Among people who were raised Catholic, both former Catholics and those who have remained Catholic report similar levels of childhood attendance at religious education classes.
Kathy Kelley, Department of Religious Education representative on the Board of Directors of the National Catholic Education Association.
What this statistic say about the quality of religious education: I think it is unfair to pin people leaving the Church on a person’s religious education experience. How effectively we are in drawing young people into a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church is only one piece, though a very important piece.
What can be done to help young people remain part of the Church: I think we are coming back to a recognition that we have got to help our folks look at the traditions of the Church, to recognize how much it is a part of God’s plan and help them make those connections.
I do not think Ms. Kelley should be defensive about the role Catholic education has played in the falling away of many Catholics from the Faith. To be successful in business, you have to be merciless in looking at what is succeeding and what is failing, and this is judged solely by results. If something is not producing, it needs to be either jettisoned or radically changed. And the fact is that Catholic education over the past few decades has done little to retain Catholics, as can be seen by the Pew Study. The solution is not more of the same, but to seriously look at our Catholic educational system and rebuild it from the ground up. There are too many Catholic schools which are glorified public schools that simply add a few works of charity and little else distinctively Catholic. Such schools will not halt the exodus and need to be given a long hard look.
Fact: Among lifelong Catholics, weekly church attendance dropped from 86 percent during childhood to 69 percent during adolescence and continued to decline between adolescence and adulthood (to 42 percent).
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver — a member of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship.
What this finding says about the Church’s sacramental life: The drop in attendance should seriously concern bishops, pastors and anyone involved in catechetics and the preparation of the liturgy. Some of the problem, of course, is the result of children leaving their homes and making decisions on their own. Some of it comes from the complexities of our current culture. And some of it, frankly, comes from laziness. But the tepid and even sloppy way our liturgies are too often celebrated drives some people away as well.
What can be done to stop the decline: It’s very important that priests and people do all they can to make their parish liturgies times of beauty and prayer worthy of God’s presence. This requires good music, good preaching and prayerful participation. Anything short of that gives folks a reason for not attending.
Archbishop Chaput, as always, understands the problem. When most people think of evangelization, they think of going door-to-door, sharing your faith, and preaching the Gospel. What they don’t realize is that the Liturgy is a primary means of passing on the faith. A beautiful, reverent Liturgy, celebrated in all parishes throughout the Church, will do more to retain Church members than any program or event. People are naturally attracted to beauty and are created to worship God, so a Liturgy that does that – instead of being focused on being “relevant” or culturally attuned – will do wonders in retaining Catholics.
There are other great insights in the article, which you can read in full here. All Catholics have an obligation to pass on the faith to others, whether it be our family or friends or co-workers or even strangers, so we should look to those who are engaged in this struggle for advice on how to better fulfill our obligations as Catholics.
St. Paul, pray for us!