“Going, Going, Gone” Study on Why Young Catholics Leave the Church

This is a long post, but it’s an important one. Grab a sandwich.

A new study released by St. Mary’s Press in collaboration with Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostlate (CARA) reveals the results of two years of research on why young Catholics leave the Church. The study surveyed 1500 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 who identify as former Catholics and includes interviews with 214 of those surveyed.

The study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” purports to be, “all about young people telling their stories of why they left the Church in their own words, uncensored and unfiltered,” according to John Vitek, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Press and one of the two authors of the study. Mr. Vitek continued, “Some of what was said by youth about the Catholic Church is disturbing and unpleasant, but it’s critical for church leaders to hear it without casting blame or trying to explain it away.”

Mr. Vitek said St. Mary’s Press became interested in research on the matter in response to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center on Americans who have changed their religious affiliation. That study reported that the growth of “the nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, has been substantial, from 16.1% of the population in 2007 to 22.8% in 2015. The authors of “Going, Going, Gone,” write that, “Of all the major denominations, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes, despite these losses having been largely offset by Hispanic immigration to the United States,” and they estimate that, “approximately 12.8 percent of U. S. young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are former Catholics, and that approximately 6.8 percent of U. S. teens between the ages of 15 and 17 are former Catholics.”

74% of those surveyed reported that they left the Catholic Church between the ages of 10 and 20. The median age for leaving the Church was 13 years old. When asked to identify their current religious affiliation:

  • 35% identified as having no religious affiliation
  • 14% identified as atheist or agnostic
  • 9 percent identified as non-Protestant Christian
  • 9 percent identified as Protestant Christian
  • less than 1 percent identified as Eastern Orthodox Christian
  • less than 1 percent identified as some other religious affiliation (Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim)

Why do young people leave the Church? Mr. Vitek insists, “The reasons most adults think young people leave the church are not the reasons young people leave the church. There are so many assumptions made by adults that are simply inaccurate. When you hear a young person tell their story in their own words, it’s really instructive and clarifying. Clarity, accurateness and truth open doors to authentic insight and understanding.”

The study identifies three archetypes for those who have left the faith: the injured, the drifters, and the dissenters.

The injured include those who have experienced difficulties, struggles, or even tragedies. These experiences caused them to reject God’s existence, or His love for them. They may have reached out to God, but God seemed not to respond. They lost faith because their experience of God was of a God who is absent or uncaring.

The drifters are those who, as the name suggests, simply drifted away from the faith because their experience of the faith was inconsistent with the priorities of their life, or they failed to appreciate why being Catholic was so important. Many regard the rules, regulations, and rituals of the Church as meaningless for moderns. This archetype, especially, included members of families who failed to live the faith regularly. It often happens that entire families drift away from the faith together.

The dissenter archetype includes those who are more aggressive in their rejection of the faith. They cite dissent from Church teaching on cultural moral issues such as abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. Their dissent, however, was not limited to those issues often highlighted in the media, but on more central matters of faith, as well.

In an interview with Catholic News Agency, Mr. Vitek made the point that these archetypes can have a great deal of overlap. “A young person may first have a disruptive experience that causes them to feel hurt or broken in some way,” he said. “That brokenness might lead the young person to begin to question or doubt their faith, and their unresolved doubt may lead them to drift away.”

Two percent of those surveyed cited the priest sex abuse scandal as a reason for their leaving the Church.

Two important factors the study reported was that many of those who leave the faith claim to believe in Jesus and what He taught, but feel that organized religion has abandoned the core of Jesus’ teaching. They also report that, while they had questions and concerns during their time as Catholics, they rarely talked with a parent, pastor, or other Church leader for fear of being judged.

Mr. Vitek speaks to these points: “It’s clear that church leaders will need to open their minds and their hearts in order to view disaffiliation not as a grave threat, but as a new reality in which the church’s evangelizing mission must function in wholly new ways. Most young people still believe in God and want to be connected spiritually, but they also believe that religion is just one path to a fulfilled life. A critical first step for the church is to provide a nonjudgmental place for young people to openly and honestly wrestle with their questions, struggles, and doubts about faith and religion. If we don’t, they will leave and find a place where they can.”

An important factor in the study that will likely not get a great deal of attention is this: Only 17% of those surveyed who reported having left the Catholic Church said that they attended Mass every Sunday in the years they were Catholic. Fully 28% reported that they rarely or never attended Mass during the years they were Catholic.

So, here are some thoughts of mine on the study.

It is clear that, if a young person is going to embrace the faith, then they must be raised in the faith. While the Church, in the person of the bishop, the pastor, religious education instructors (either at Catholic school or CCD), and others who represent the Church in a more or less official capacity, have their responsibilities toward young people coming of age in the Church, it cannot be stressed enough that the responsibility for passing on the faith and raising our children in righteousness belongs to parents. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council recognized this and wrote in the document on the Church, Lumen gentium (#11):

“Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God. From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.” (emphasis added)

I have mentioned, too, in my talks to Catholic families and to men’s groups the results of research that identifies the factors that contribute to a child who goes to church growing up to be an adult who goes to church. Of all the factors involved, the primary factor that outweighs all others is this: Did the father of the family go to church? If the father of a family attends church, there is a 66% likelihood that his children will attend church as an adult. If he doesn’t, that likelihood is less than 10%, even if the mother attends and brings the children with her. Nature does not lie about the important role of the father in the life of his children. Catholic men need to step up and take responsibility for their role as spiritual heads of their households.

American culture today disrespects and minimizes the importance of parents in the lives of their children. We see with regularity TV programs and movies where parents are either entirely absent or ridiculed when present. The message is clear from our culture: “You don’t need your parents! You can live your own life without being bossed around by these clumsy authoritarians who don’t understand you and never will!” This message contradicts every bit of social research on the question, which consistently recommends that the best and most successful environment for children is one in which they grow up with two biological parents who are married to each other (and, I might add, two parents of the opposite sex) Catholic parents must be prepared to resist the tide that judges their family structure as inadequate, unhealthy, and irrelevant. Standing for intact, traditionally-structured families has become a matter of standing for the faith and well-being in the face of fierce cultural opposition. Catholics who do not enjoy the benefit of being in an intact, two-parent family (I grew up in a highly dysfunctional family headed by a single mother after the death of my father at a young age) must work all the harder to make sure their children are taught and given opportunities to live the faith in their home. There is hope in every family structure and situation, regardless of how bleak, but that hope must be accompanied by the work of example in prayer, service, knowledge of the faith, and love.

So, I have five recommendations that I regard as essential for Catholic family life. If you do these things, you can increase the likelihood that your own children will embrace the faith and remain steadfast in it as adults by several orders of magnitude.

Prior to these recommendations, however, there is a question that must first be answered. How you answer this question is the foundation on which your Catholic family life will be built. The question is: Is it important to you to be Catholic and that your children be Catholic? That may seem obvious, and it is. Frankly, if your answer to that question is, “No,” then we can stop right here. Clearly, in a great number of the families from which those surveyed in the study “Going, Going, Gone” being Catholic was not very important, or important at all, given that fully 83% of respondents reported that they did not attend Mass regularly, and fully 28% rarely or never. Since most children can’t drive, it ought to be obvious that Mass attendance by children is a decision made by parents. The parents of these children decided that it was not important for them or their children to attend Mass. It’s no surprise that these kids ended up rejecting the faith.

If, however, being Catholic is important to you and it is important to you that your children be Catholic, then you ought to be willing to do what you can to make that happen. So, here are five recommendations I have for every Catholic family:

  1. Attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. Yes, every Sunday and every Holy Day. Every Sunday, because our relationship with God is central to our lives here on Earth and necessary for our salvation. You cannot have a relationship with anyone if you’re not in regular contact. Our relationship with God is no different. For Catholics, that means Mass every Sunday, at least. Plus, when we participate in Mass, we are participating in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and receiving the grace won by Christ on the Cross. What better way to start the week! Holy Days are important, too, because they often fall during the week and attending can sometimes be really inconvenient. Just so, attending Holy Days Mass can witness to our children the priority of our faith, even when it intrudes on our daily lives in ways that are not always convenient. We do not grow in holiness by a practice of less sacrifice. As referenced above, this is especially important for fathers. Even if the father cannot attend with his family for various reasons, it’s important that his children know that he is attending Mass wherever he is.
  2. Pray together as a family. Your relationship with your spouse and your children is not limited to one day a week, is it? What about with your co-workers? Just so, our relationship with God should be daily, and that means daily prayer, or at least regular prayer together as a family. Fr. Patrick Peyton, the Rosary Priest, was famous for coining the phrase, “The family that prays together stays together.” It’s true. Too many Catholic families fail to spend time together in prayer, and those that do often limit themselves to Grace over Meals. Even recited slowly, Grace over Meals takes about nine seconds. I think we can all agree that nine seconds of family prayer a day isn’t going to cut it, but many Catholic families don’t even get that. If you’re looking for a fine structure for family prayer, you can reference my blog post on family prayer here, or find a number of resources at your Catholic bookstore or parish. However you do it, pray together as a family.
  3. Study the faith. You don’t have to be an expert or a theologian. But, it is important that your children know that you take the faith seriously and that you can help them answer basic questions about the faith. I’ve often said that every Catholic kid has a right to go to his father or mother with a question about the faith and receive an answer other than, “Go ask Father!” Even if that answer is, “Let’s find out!” you’ll win scores of points with your kids. And, guess what, you’ll also increase your own knowledge of the faith and grow in devotion and zeal as a result. Plus, your kids need to know that they can come to you with questions and concerns, not only about the faith, but about life in general. The “Going, Going, Gone” study reported that kids who left the faith had lots of questions, but were afraid to ask their parents because they felt they would be judged. I’m willing to bet these kids rarely asked or talked with their parents about much of anything. Don’t be that parent! Encourage an atmosphere where your kids want to talk with you.
  4. Go to Confession. You know you need to, anyway, and doing so will set a great example for your children (and, hey, maybe your spouse, too!). The life of the sacraments is essential to Catholic life. While you’re at it, make sure your kids get Baptized and Confirmed and, if your marriage is not consecrated in the Church, speak with your priest about arranging for that. The sacraments are the ordinary ways God pours out His grace to us. God can touch our lives in many ways, but in the sacraments we know He does so, so there’s that extra level of confidence that we have encountered God here.
  5. Find some way to serve. Both individually and as a family, service to others helps kids understand that life is not all about them and that their lives are more joyful and meaningful when lived for others. Love begins at home, but it’s not meant to stay there. Service projects don’t have to be world-changing or involve extraordinary time commitments, but it’s important that y’all do something, even if writing letters to the sick or prisoners or delivering meals occasionally to the needy. Parishes almost always have multiple opportunities to serve. Get involved for the sake of others.

Well, that’s it. If you can’t manage all of these at this time or at any given time, make it a point to do as many as you can, especially Sunday Mass and family prayer. If you want to be Catholic and you want your kids to be Catholic, then being Catholic has to be a conscious decision and a daily one. That’s not a bad thing, for our kids and for ourselves.

Pope Francis has called for a Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment to be held in Rome in October of this year. Let’s pray for the Holy Father and the bishops as they address this important matter for the future of the Church and for the future of family life.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.







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