Our teens are leaving the church. Why?

Photo by Fulvio Ambrosanio on Unsplash

Why do young American Catholics leave the church? In January, St. Mary’s Press, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, released a two-year national study of disaffiliation among young American Catholics in conjunction with a symposium on the topic at the Maritime Conference Center in Baltimore. The report, “Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” hones in on the reasons (note they are plural). The emphasis is on narrative, so the report includes stories told by young (ex-)Catholics—204 of them—explaining their decisions to exit. The research goal was pastoral: By hearing youthful voices, and taking seriously what they have to say about why they leave, the church might come up with more meaningful strategies for keeping them engaged.

Around the same time, the Barna Group, a California-based for-profit research organization, released a report titled “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” Although the data sources and methods differed somewhat in these two national studies (the Barna Group focused on 13- to-18-year-olds; the St. Mary’s/CARA study included 15- to 25-year-olds), both asked about barriers to faith and church.

Advertisement

What the Research Shows

The study of so-called “nones” or “dones” has been an academic growth industry for several decades now, while social science research on post-Vatican II Catholic disaffiliation goes back nearly a half-century. “Going, Going, Gone!” and “Generation Z” are only the latest additions to this scholarly stockpile. When juxtaposed with other survey data and contemporary scholarship on the topic, the St. Mary’s/CARA and Barna Group projects get much right.

Research in general shows that religious disaffiliation cuts across almost all traditions, although not equally. It occurs among all age cohorts, but more dramatically among younger millennial and Generation Z respondents. Disaffiliation is a gradual process; one finds few road-to-Damascus de-conversion experiences in the literature. Nor does any single law of social causality explain all cases. Different people leave for different reasons. Catholic disaffiliation—which currently represents the greatest net loss of any American religious group—mirrors the intergenerational and intragenerational realignment of religious preference and disaffiliation characteristic of the current American religious landscape in general.

Studies of religious disaffiliation point unmistakably in the direction of a post-Christian American future.

The youthful voices in “Going, Going, Gone!”, along with the quantitative data reported in “Generation Z,” affirm other research findings that dropping out is largely about personal change in the spiritual lives of individuals, and often more about how they feel about church than how they feel about God—although the alarms ring louder in this latter regard in the Barna poll, especially the negative impact of the age-old problem of reconciling the world’s horrors with belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, all-good God. And as with other research, the St. Mary’s/CARA study shows that disaffiliation from the church is sometimes associated with the intensification, rather than diminishment, of personal faith.

The American penchant for religious revivalism notwithstanding, both studies point unmistakably in the direction of a post-Christian American future, one marked by declines in church attendance, religious institutional affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading—even as unbounded “spirituality” gains more and more cultural capital.

The Bigger Picture

While these studies get much right, other matters remain overlooked, notably larger contextual issues. Pondering religious disaffiliation and appropriate responses to it necessitates differentiating between “micro” and “macro” factors. The former are the narrative elements or polling data relating to specific individuals. They paint personal portraits of the alienation and estrangement that drive (or serve as rationalization for) many faith departures. These are important and compelling factors. They need to be heard and respected. But broader, macro dynamics shaping contemporary American religious culture also merit attention. Consider the following with regard to Catholics.

Historically, a good part of the bond between American Catholics and the church derived from the tight relationship between religion and ethnicity, along with the general sense of Catholic “otherness” in American life. Ethnicity created a complex social ecology that sustained Catholic identity and commitment and made for strong parish life. Assimilation weakened this dynamic. By comparison with contemporary Hispanic and Asian Catholic populations, fewer Euro-American Catholics now experience their faith as a communal (ethnic) reality. As ethnicity declined and social mobility increased, and as Catholics become more integrated into other social spheres and developed more heterogeneous social networks, they became less embedded in relations with their co-religionists.

Historically, a good part of the bond between American Catholics and the church derived from the tight relationship between religion and ethnicity, along with the general sense of Catholic “otherness” in American life.

With the exception of some of the newer thriving parishes in different parts of the country, particularly in the South and Southwest, the waning influence of the parish as a locus of Catholic communalism is highly relevant here. Previous studies have all shown that many younger Catholics have a diminished sense of Catholic identity, not only as a coherent system of rituals, symbols and creedal affirmation, but as a vibrant reality of groups, friendships, organizations and associations. In addition, the hollowing out of Catholicism’s social core has combined with the gradual decline in the importance of a Catholic identity and with the declining credibility of the church’s authority structure. In this larger context, leaving the church becomes not only easier, but in some cases more probable.

The waning sense of Catholic “otherness” is another operative factor. In keeping with an old sociological dictum, “external threat; internal cohesion,” it is obvious that Catholicism’s coming of age in American culture, combined with sweeping changes in the post-Vatican II church, has had an impact on cohesion and commitment. This suggests, as noted in a 2001 book by me and some colleagues (Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice), no small irony: that tolerance may prove more lethal to Catholic identity and commitment than intolerance.

Other macro factors driving youthful disaffiliation include declining institutional authority of all kinds (not just religious); the broad postmodern rejection of ascribed identity, with emphasis instead on identity construction that gives preference to personal “reflexivity”; the excesses of atomistic individualism; and the hegemonic influence of consumer capitalism, with its impetus to commodify all cultural wares—including religious ones—through market economy dynamics that accentuate “choice.”

The widespread destabilization of family life is another obvious contextual factor driving disaffiliation across the board. As the family goes, so goes the church. Although parenting styles and the transmission of parents’ religious values to their sons and daughters vary, where marital harmony exists, religious values—especially among adolescents—tend to mirror parents’ values.

In addition, as contemporary Catholicism’s institutional boundaries become more diffused and porous, and as Catholic identity has become less bounded by creed or doctrine, the questions of “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?” have themselves become more complex. With some exceptions, traditional Catholic symbolic and ritual boundary mechanisms have weakened at the same time that the varieties of Catholic identity have expanded, such that “Catholic” now takes adjectives in an unprecedented way.

Faith and Reason(s)

Other relevant considerations raised in “Going, Going, Gone” and “Generation Z” have to do with assumptions about the actual rootedness in the faith of those who reject it—especially teenagers, given that the median age of disaffiliation in the “Going, Going, Gone” study was 13. Some readers might come away from these two studies with the impression that disaffiliation is a reasoned process by teenagers fully cognizant of the subtleties of doctrine, creed and church discipline. But I have on more than one occasion heard a rejection of the church rooted in (among other things) a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church has actually taught.

This raises an important question: When we consider the weight of traditional life-cycle-effect factors on religious disaffiliation that are not related to doctrinal or creedal discontent, can we also discern the actual depth of the knowledge of faith of those who reject it? A considerable body of previous research on nones and religious disaffiliates suggests that the reasons presented for disaffiliating are often vague and inarticulate, or are related to little more than personal changes (e.g., leaving a childhood home), losing interest, drifting away, laziness or the catch-all “no reason in particular.”

A related disaffiliation rationale that both reports suggest is in need of deeper exploration concerns the role of science. Significant numbers of teens indicated that their beliefs were now predicated on “factual evidence.” In one fashion or the other, they attributed their departure from religion to their ideas of what is required by a belief in science. These assertions, like knowledge of the content of their faith, raise the question of scientific literacy: How much do most respondents—especially young ones—actually know and understand about both scientific facts and scientific epistemology? Data on American scientific literacy in general is not encouraging in this regard. Nor is it apparent why Catholicism, a tradition that extols a positive relationship between faith and reason, apparently falls so short here.

Research on nones and religious disaffiliates suggests that the reasons presented for disaffiliating are often vague and inarticulate, or are related to little more than personal changes.

Finally, it is worth noting that a narrative approach to understanding religious disaffiliation presents a problem common to such descriptions: retrospective reporting. Sometimes explanations given for a particular behavior, like converting into or out of a tradition, are essentially learned narratives after the fact of the change. This is particularly the case when individuals have joined a new tradition in which they are likely to be exposed to a new motivational vocabulary. Incentives or attributions for leaving may have been framed by the new experience itself, and may or may not have a first-order relationship to what the individual was actually experiencing at the time of their departure. This is not to conjure up the specter of deception; it is to draw attention to the fact that narratives after the fact are themselves social constructs. This is a yellow caution light when it comes to taking at face value what young and old alike have to say about faith changes.

“Going, Going, Gone” and “Generation Z” offer important insights into the contemporary American religious landscape. The former is an especially laudable effort that takes the voices of young people seriously and enables them to be heard by a larger audience. Those hoping for stronger attachment of the young to the church are well-advised to digest what is reported in that study, notably the litany of “Why I left” grievances.

At the same time, wisdom is needed to recognize the difference between factors driving disaffiliation over which church leadership and faith communities can exercise some control and influence—and thereby creatively arrest some of the hemorrhaging—and factors over which they have little or no control.

Discernment is of the essence.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
A Fielder
2 months 3 weeks ago

Hmmm. 1725 words, but not one about discrimination against women or the injustices of an antiquated sexual ethic. I guess the lapsed are just lazy, don't understand their faith and society is too friendly to Catholics, that's what the author argues. Is the CARA study really that blind, or is the author just very selective with the facts?

Nora Bolcon
2 months 3 weeks ago

Amen A. Fielder - Don't you understand it isn't that we are hiding from the truth - no that's not the problem - of course not no no and no matter how many young people tell us its our horrible treatment of women, children, the laity in general, and LGBTQ we are definitely going to continue to assume that they don't mean what they say and their leaving is just a big mystery.

Jinny Wallerstedt
2 months 3 weeks ago

Good observation, Fielder...this didn't occur to me as I was reading. I really enjoyed the piece. Interestingly, I have read and heard elsewhere that disagreement with doctrine/dogma (under which I would place discrimination against women and an ultra-traditional sexual ethic) is cited LESS than other factors, by many, as reasons for disaffiliation. Curious indeed.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 3 weeks ago

This is often because the survey takers are Catholic affiliated and they don't ask certain questions so they don't get answers they don't want to report.

Jessica Pegis
2 months 3 weeks ago

Jinny W, are you sure this is with millennials?

Jessica Pegis
2 months 3 weeks ago

I agree completely. The author also missed that science demystifies and "denatures" life and that these are often the very aspects that arouse youth skepticism of church explanations, including so-called essentialist traits of male and female beyond biology, LGBTQ people, and so forth. When the author asked, "How much do most respondents—especially young ones—actually know and understand about ... scientific facts?" it was patronizing.

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

BRAVO Jessica

Mike Macrie
2 months 3 weeks ago

Let me add this the Catholic Church’s clings to archaic rules like not performing a Catholic Marriage unless it’s done inside a Catholic Church. The last time I looked Pew Research said that 75% to 80% percent of Catholic Women use Artificial Contraception. The Church says it’s not against Natural Contraception. The goal in Contraception in preventing pregnancy is the same, it’s just more difficult in Natural Contraception. How do you justify the reasoning between the two when the goal is the same.
The article leaves out government politics which has been a Cancer inside the Catholic Church. What, kids don’t hear their parents talk about how the Church takes sides ? The Right to Life Movement is admirable but in too many instances they have become Republican Clubs. I give the Catholic Texas Right to Life Movement a lot of credit by breaking away from the State’s Right to Life Movement for seeing that it had become a Republican Organization in telling people how to vote. Strip all Politics out of the Church and tell the American Conference of Bishops to stop endorsing Canidates.
A poor Catholic Church will survive because it will get back to its grassroots.

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

Amen Yes Yes Yes
Just because people don't want the patriarchy that absolves men of all the consequences of their actions and blames women+children, doesn't mean they reject God or faith Just the antiquated patriarchy
This article is just another example of the blind patriarchy

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

Amen Yes Yes Yes A Fielder
Just because people don't want the patriarchy that absolves men of all the consequences of their actions and blames women+children, doesn't mean they reject God or faith Just the antiquated patriarchy
This article is just another example of the blind patriarchy

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

Rejecting organized religion does not mean an unGodly world
It means rejecting the judgement, hate, and exclusion of organized religion in exchange for faith in a loving God that accepts all like Jesus did
Jesus was a feminist
The Catholic Church is NOT

Franklin Uroda
2 months 3 weeks ago

The author doesn't mention love for Jesus, Who is personally present to each believer, 24/7. In fact he doesn't mention Him or His Name. Jesus is relevant always and everywhere, in any situation.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 3 weeks ago

"Incentives or attributions for leaving may be framed by new experiences and may or may not have a relationship with ones first order experience. Not because people are being deceptive but because narratives, after the facts are social constructs". Wow! That insight really resonates with me. It expresses succinctly and clearly what I know to be true not only about subjectively changed faith narratives but other subjectively changed narratives.
I admit part of me thinks that the result of secularism with no official state religion, may be leading to atheism. The public space is awash with atheism or moot on God, while religion is on the margins or in deep reputational trouble .That looks to me like a very possible trajectory. But that contradicts my belief in Jesus Christ who said; upon this rock I build my church …!I hope that my vision is myopic because it sure challenges my faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 3 weeks ago

Ahh yes - We have entered a post Christianity era! - Hmm . . I don't think so. Many of the young I have spoken to love Jesus and fully believe in him - but the church - that's another thing. My most recent conversation with a NONE who was raised Catholic - just two weeks ago, while talking about McCarrick, had this 20 some young, married, mom, lawyer saying, "I get that you stay because you are fighting for change but for me right now - I Love God and believe in Jesus but Catholicism, between the discrimination and sex abuse, it is just to gross for me to take part in." She said maybe one day, I will go back, if you help get things changed Nora! - and then she just smiled at me. How can I blame her. She isn't staying away for esoteric reasons. Neither are the rest of the NONES - that is simply a lie.

How long are we going to refuse to believe what the young people and NONES say repeatedly on the many - many surveys we have taken of NONES once they have left church practice, and especially in the case of Catholicism? The list is always the same:

1. Clergy Sex and Child Abuse

2. Sexism and misogyny clearly present in our sacramental treatment of women by refusing to allow them ordination to priesthood, or allow them to be made bishops, cardinals or Popes .

3. Clericalism - arrogant, hypocritical, uncaring, or unloving, overly authoritarian priests, bishops, cardinals and popes who seem to believe the church belongs more to them than to the laity.

4. Hurtful and excluding behaviors and attitudes towards all LGBTQ.

5. To much pushing of politics, and in particular conservative politics, to which many young and old justifiably disagree.

6. Our stand on birth control and some of the demanded choices of how to deal with pro life issues. The omnipotent attitude of the hierarchy and demand that pushing new law in our country is the only possible answer to pro-life issues' complicated problems and questions.

Catholicisms views on marriage and co-habitation before marriage.

A strong sense that the laity is simply not heard and their concerns are intentionally disregarded by the hierarchy. People who make suggestions regarding what they would prefer in liturgy are only taken seriously or put into effect when the priest wants them regardless what the majority of the parish may desire.

Catholicism is often not a very warm environment to worship within. There needs to be more community building within parishes but the laity need to feel they will be supported by their priests when they venture to start these works.

These same answers and results have been coming from the NONES for at least a couple of decades now and in many surveys. Honestly, it is as though CARA and other Catholic survey takers actually just avoid asking the questions regarding above issues because then they don't have to face them. CARA is big on asking agenda laced questions lately like: Do you want women deacons? and many NONES will answer no - we want women ordained priests and treated the same as men. So an answer like that will go down on the survey as only: Many NONES don't want women deacons. Nothing may noted that they want genuine equality and same sacraments because that question, intentionally, was not asked.

We should stop taking surveys until we are ready to hear the truth. Sadly, much more time away from church and we could cause a post Christian era due to a youth that will grow increasingly ignorant of what Jesus accomplished. That will be the price of our many biases against certain groups and our unwillingness to stand up to a hierarchy who allows and perpetrates those hatreds and calls them Christian.

Thomas Severin
2 months 3 weeks ago

Excellent response Nora!
Just as there was a tremendous amount of denial and false narratives related to the priest pedophile scandal, there is equivalent denial and false narratives regarding why people have left and continue to leave the Catholic Church. Also, some realities are just too painful for us to admit, so we simply refuse to entertain them as reasons that people are leaving the Church.

Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea
2 months 3 weeks ago

Fabulous reply, Nora! The author, as is all too common, is all to ready to blame everything but the Church for the disaffiliation. I also see young people who are deeply committed to service, spirituality, Jesus but have no use for organized religion. FOR VERY GOOD REASONS. One does not have to belong to a church to be a Christian. Thank you for a coherent, thorough, and meaningful rebuttal to the article.

Mike Theman
2 months 3 weeks ago

So what you are saying, Nora, is that interest in the Church is waning because America's youth has been corrupted by leftist thought, promoted by public schools and the media, designed to attack Catholicism.

So should the Christ's Church adapt to humanism, heathenism, and hedonism; or should the Church fight back against the communist forces that seek to destroy it? I'm for the latter, starting with the dissolving of the Federal Department of Education.

Dolores Pap
2 months 3 weeks ago

Well- when a church tells them that women aren't equal to men, when they want to exercise control over women's bodies, when they demean their LGBTQ friends and family as being ‘disordered, when have no problem closing an eye to the sexual misdeeds of their clergy- they should expect a stampede to the exits..

LuAnn O'Connell
2 months 2 weeks ago

Yes, many young people are tired of the hypocrisy, rigid rules and legalism and deadness they see in the church and want a lively, loving faith that more accurately reflects Jesus.

Mike Macrie
2 months 3 weeks ago

Thumps Up Nora ! It’s time for the Catholic Church to address the issues with Laity having an equal say on needed changes within the Church. The Cardinals themselves can’t even agree among themselves. They have been Political from the Middle Ages to the present in their own importance.

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

Wow Nora
Let's hope they take your message to heart
Awesome!!!

Charlie Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Well said!! I have two other versions that are not as clear, but are more succinct. Firstly, the Church hierarchy is totally disconnected from the people they allegedly serve. Secondly, too many parish priests and certainly most of the Church hierarchy view most of the laity as unintelligent, uneducated pew rats with fat wallets.

Timothy Broyles
2 months 3 weeks ago

As a person who has worked for the Church since 1985, in ministry to young people, I think I have a good sense of this topic. Young people are attracted to the Church if and only if we are a Church like unto Jesus. If we are not, they can see it, and they know we are something other than Christian, no matter how nice our buildings or beautiful our liturgies. If our clergy and lay ministers of the church are not truly committed to living the paschal mystery, which is a life of solidarity, humility, hospitality, and downward mobility, if we choose only to worship a disembodied, gnostic Jesus and not follow him into the barrios, the slums, and the ghettos, then young people will continue to see us, as Martin Luther King said, as an "irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century." We must break from our culture's insatiable desire for status, wealth, and power. When we do, young people will join us again, because they will see that we are truly something different. They will know we are Catholics only by our love (for the least).

Thomas Severin
2 months 3 weeks ago

Great analysis, Tim. I too, worked with high school age students for over 30 years and I couldn't agree with you more.

Jessica Pegis
2 months 3 weeks ago

Spot on.

Jenna Lyndly
2 months 3 weeks ago

BRAVO Timothy Perfect!

Crystal Watson
2 months 3 weeks ago

The way this church treats women and LGBT people, the archaic doctrines about love/sex/marriage, the sex abuse cover-up, the top-down power structure, the hierarchy not practicing what they preach. History of Christianity scholar Diana Butler Bass has a book ... "Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening" ... https://www.amazon.com/Christianity-After-Religion-Spiritual-Awakening-…

John Chuchman
2 months 3 weeks ago

Why not?
Good for them.

J Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

The problem is belief. It is that simple. If one believes, one continues enthusiastically.

The author points to science and possible conflict with religion. The ironic thing is that science supports religion not dispels it.

J Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

Nor is it apparent why Catholicism, a tradition that extols a positive relationship between faith and reason, apparently falls so short here.

I rarely see on this Jesuit Catholic site any use of reason/rationale for being a Catholic. It is mostly emotional appeals for doing something. Quite a change from my Catholic education.

Mike Macrie
2 months 3 weeks ago

Come on you know you love this site to make your comments ! You be bored to death without it.

J Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

You claim to read minds. I don't have that capability. I have a question for you. Why should anyone let alone a teenager be a Catholic? Your answer might help the author understand what is going on.

geoff@trinitylimerock.org
2 months 3 weeks ago

I can only comment on what I see. I know a 16 year old Roman Catholic girl, who has attended Catholic schools most of her life, who is now a licensed Lay Eucharistic Minister in the Episcopal Church. Her current goal is being able to Consecrate. There is a message here for those who will see it.

Stephen Samenuk
2 months 2 weeks ago

What a bunch of scholastic "let's see how many big words I can use," crap. Obviously the professor can't even get the point across clearly and plainly. No wonder the church is losing so many people.

LuAnn O'Connell
2 months 2 weeks ago

This is an interesting take on the situation--it sounds like the reasons they are leaving are all external to the church--no mention that maybe the church itself plays a part.

"With the exception of some of the newer thriving parishes in different parts of the country, particularly in the South and Southwest, the waning influence of the parish as a locus of Catholic communalism is highly relevant here. Previous studies have all shown that many younger Catholics have a diminished sense of Catholic identity, not only as a coherent system of rituals, symbols and creedal affirmation, but as a vibrant reality of groups, friendships, organizations and associations. In addition, the hollowing out of Catholicism’s social core has combined with the gradual decline in the importance of a Catholic identity and with the declining credibility of the church’s authority structure. In this larger context, leaving the church becomes not only easier, but in some cases more probable."

In other words, people were Catholic because it was the cultural thing to do in their neighborhood and family which is no longer the case. (Phew! I have a master's degree and this is hard to read.) Maybe that's a good thing that people aren't just Catholic because it's their culture. I think Catholic Culture is actually a turn off to some as it can feel so us-them and rather "old-fashioned" rather than rooted in history and eternity.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Something that happened more than 2,000 years ago will draw all of time, all of the longings of the human heart, into itself.
Terrance KleinNovember 21, 2018
The only Americans under review for canonization to attend a public university, Day’s indiscretions and confusions, those awkward discoveries and repeated failures of youth, are our own.
Nathan TyeNovember 21, 2018
Father Keating left us a powerful but unlikely solution to our current national crisis: centering prayer.
Tim ShriverNovember 21, 2018
Pope Francis eats lunch with poor people

This week on “Inside the Vatican,” Gerry and I look into some new developments in the stories surrounding the U.S.

Colleen DulleNovember 21, 2018