Young Adult Catholics: From March 27, 1999

We would be hard pressed to find a Catholic in the United States who does not have an opinion about where young adult Catholics are on their faith journey. Anecdotal evidence abounds. Parents, pastors and teachers tell tales of the religious journeys of their young adult children, parishioners and students. But the listener must beware whenever the storytellers suggest that the road they describe is the one traveled by all young adult Catholics. The task of the social scientist, upon hearing these stories, is to ask: How widespread is this phenomenon? How representative are these accounts? Can we generalize from these cases to the whole population? And when claims are made, social scientists have the responsibility to ask: Where are the data that prove or disprove these claims?



These are not always welcome questions, especially when the tellers of the tale are popular people or holders of a popular position. But the questions are necessary here because of the size of the young adult Catholic population and their significance to the church.


We need not go far to find examples of generalizations about young adults. Two recent articles in America are illustrations. First, Tom Beaudoin, in his article about Generation X (11/21/98), responds to church ministers who ask, “Why do we need to start a 20- and 30-somethings ministry? Generation X will come back to the church when they get married and want their babies baptized.” Mr. Beaudoin counters: “This is untrue. According to both anecdotal and emerging sociological evidence, X-ers are continuing to hang back from the church out of suspicion or indifference.”


Mr. Beaudoin makes similar state­ments in his 1998 book Virtual Faith. He says that “X-ers challenge reli­gious institutions in general” and “specifically assault the Catholic Church.” “Generation X approaches religion with a lived theology that is very suspicious of institutions. Indeed X-ers have a heavily ingrained (one could say ‘institutional’) suspicion or skepticism (even cynicism) in gener­al.”


Second, in an earlier America article (10/11/97) the Rev. Willard F. Jabusch speaks about the conservative tendencies found in some college and graduate students. After observing that these young people “form only a small, though vocal, group,” he adds that “there are enough of them in uni­versities and seminaries to give cam­pus ministers and seminary rectors an acute case of dyspepsia. Yet they clearly do not speak for the majority, who are neither so rigid nor so judg­mental.” Father Jabusch then goes on to assert, “But it must also be said quite honestly that many, if not most, young adults who are still coming to church are conservative and at least slightly right of center.”


A National Study.

We recently gathered national data on young adult Catholics that test statements such as these. We inter­viewed a national sample of Catho­lics who had been confirmed during adolescence and were now between the ages of 20 and 39. We collected two samples, one of Latinos and one of non-Latinos (that is, everyone else). We interviewed 848 persons by phone (421 Latinos and 427 non-Latinos) whose names we randomly chose from confirmation lists in 44 represen­tative U.S. parishes. The parishes were located in inner-city, urban, suburban and rural areas in dioceses across the United States.


We designed our study to get the proper mix of Catholics by race and ethnicity for both samples. From the United States Catholic Conference we calculated that as of 1980 (near the midpoint of the confirmation years) 3 percent of all U.S. Catholics were African Americans and 2 percent were Asians or Pacific Islanders. Our non-Latino sample had similar percentages. The remainder were of European origin. The Latino sample was based on 1980 U.S. census data that indicated the following ori­gins: 59 percent Mexican, 14 percent Puerto Rican, 6 percent Cuban and 21 percent other.

We took lists from the parishes, and of the non-Latinos we found 74 percent on the lists and interviewed 74 percent of them. Of the Latinos, we found 51 percent and interviewed 73 percent of these.


Regarding Latinos: In our sample 88 percent were born in the United States (contrasted with 62 percent in the total Latino population in the United States today), and 63 percent said they speak mostly English at home (another 24 percent use both languages equally). These Latinos are above average in education and eco­nomic level.


Not all Catholics are confirmed during adolescence. The best esti­mates are that in the 1980’s 60 to 70 percent of non-Latinos and 30 to 40 percent of Latinos were confirmed. Thus our sample is not representative of all young adult Catholics. Certain­ly the ones who were confirmed as adolescents have a history of rela­tively more religious education and more Catholic influence in the home. Thus our sample is somewhat more involved in church life today than is the case of all young adult Catholics. However, this sample has the virtue of representing the group from whom many future leaders of the church will come.


Hypotheses and Findings.

We asked questions to measure attitudes regarding religious identi­ty and beliefs, as well as levels of church involvement. (Because we found few important differences in attitudes by age, gender or ethnicity, we are not showing those breakdowns.)



One of the most striking findings of the study is that 90 percent of the young adults who were confirmed continue to identify themselves as Catholic, and a majority consider themselves active and are registered in a parish. Only 7 percent of young Catholics change their self-identity to something other than Catholic. Today 31 percent attend Mass once a week or more, only about 6 percent never attend, and 69 percent of the non-Latinos and 66 percent of the Latinos attend Mass once a month or more. It is probable that some persons exaggerated their Mass atten­dance in the interview, as has been the case in other surveys, so the true figure is lower. Also, a sample of confirmands would be expected to attend Mass more often than a sam­ple of all young Catholics. For exam­ple, a 1995 nationwide random sur­vey of Catholics by James Davidson and his colleagues found that 24 percent of Catholics 35 or younger at­tended Mass weekly, 7 percentage points lower than our finding.


Is it common for young Catholics to become inactive some time after confirmation? Yes. Around 60 percent of the respondents became inac­tive in church life--that is, for a time they did not attend Mass as often as 12 times a year. This phenomenon of widespread dropping out is found in most Christian denominations.


About 35 percent of those who became inactive did so because of indifference (too busy, lack of interest, lazy). Mr. Beaudoin argues that, besides indifference, suspicion is the other reason for young adult Catho­lics’ “hanging back.” The only data that might back up that argument is the 12 percent of the non-Latinos and 7 percent of the Latinos who disagreed with the church, or the 1 percent of the non-Latinos and the 3 per­cent of the Latinos who said they became inactive because their lifestyle was in conflict with the church. Suspicion was not an important motive. The majority who became inactive did so for a variety of reasons, some having to do with personal and family issues. Only 18 percent of the non-Latinos and 15 percent of the Latinos mentioned church issues explicitly (disagreed with church, lifestyle in conflict with church, disliked parish or priest, or disliked liturgies or homilies) as the reason for their inactivity. Mr. Beaudoin’s characterization of the group as “suspicious” is too extreme.


About half the people who went inactive became active again before we interviewed them-48 percent of the non-Latinos and 45 percent of the Latinos. The most common reasons for returning were feelings of spiritual need (26 percent) and concern about family life and religious education for their children (24 percent). When they returned to church involvement, not all returned to Catholic parishes. By that time they were influenced by higher education, marriage and geographical changes. The figure for those who returned to Catholic parishes was the same for Latinos and non-Latinos: 86 percent. The other 14 percent switched to a variety of Protestant denominations. In sum: About three-fifths dropped out and half of them returned later.


When asked about Catholic identity and the distinctiveness of the Catholic faith, responses revealed that a clear majority of these young adults like being Catholic (only 23 percent of the non-Latinos and 20 percent of the Latinos suggest they could be just as happy in some other church). The questions do not explicitly distinguish being a member of the Catholic community versus being loyal to the institutional church, yet our interpretation is that these young adults feel a sense of belonging in the Catholic commu­nity.


Other questions tapped feelings of individual authority over against church teachings. Responses indicate the majority sentiment supports individual decision-making. These young adults do not feel that they need to adhere to certain church rules in order to be Catholic. For the majority, personal authority is more compelling than hierarchical authority.



This topic divides into three parts. First, when it is a matter of central doctrines, these young adults generally adhere to church teachings. We asked if they agree or disagree with several statements. For example, 87 percent of the non­-Latino Catholics and 95 percent of the Latinos agreed that “in Mass the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.” With the statement, “I believe in a divine judgment after death where some shall be rewarded and others punished,” 80 percent of the non-Latino Catholics and 82 percent of the Lati­nos agreed. With the statement that Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God, 91 percent of the non-Latinos and 96 percent of the Latinos agreed.


Second, regarding the place of laity and women in the church today, these young adults are ready for change. They are not right of center. A vast majority of the non-Latinos and the Latinos agreed that laypeople are as important to the church as priests, more women should hold positions of leadership and authority, and that teachings on divorce, remarriage, and sexuality should be open for discussion and debate by the laity.


Third, the young adult Catholics clearly support Catholic social justice efforts. They responded strongly in support of efforts related to racism, poverty and environmentalism. From these responses, we can see the need to be more precise when asserting that young adults are conservative. Are regular Mass attenders different from irregular attenders? Is it just the non-attenders who are liberal in doctrine, ecclesiology and social justice, or is this true also for loyal churchgoers?

We compared regular Mass attenders and irregular attenders on attitudes related to laity and women, social teaching, and other doctrinal beliefs. Mass attenders are stronger than others in their belief that in the Mass the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, and they are stronger in believing that Catholics have a duty to try to close the gap between the rich and the poor and to live simply to preserve the environment. On other items-for example, those concerning laity and women, the regular and irregular attenders held similar opinions. In short, the regular attenders are a bit more progressive in social justice than the oth­ers, and we found no evidence to sup­port Father Jabusch’s view that young adult churchgoers today are right of center.


Far From Monolithic

Catholic young adults are far from monolithic in their behaviors and attitudes, and it does them and the church a disservice when their collective portrait is painted in strokes that are overly broad. Our sample of young adults who were confirmned during adolescence provides a picture that offers a sense of proportion. We believe our findings are credible; they are supported by much of what we heard in our in-depth interviews and focus groups. Catholic young adults are not leaving Catholicism in any great numbers. They are not suspicious of the church, although they maintain a certain level of individual judgment about its teachings.


These young Catholics are neither cynics who reject the church, nor are they right-of-center on church institutional issues. They affirm key Catholic doctrines. On questions of ecclesiology and church government, they advocate empowerment of the laity in general and women in particular. We agree that some are angry, but it is not a large number. More common is a conviction that authority resides in the individual.


On socioeconomic issues, those interviewed are again left of center-supportive of church efforts to end racism, poverty and environmental degra­dation. These findings should be kept in mind if there is to be an accurate portrayal of young adult attitudes that will serve the whole church and its mission in preparing for the future.


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