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Thomas V. McGovernMay 01, 2014
Young Catholic Americaby Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill and Kari Christoffersen

Oxford University Press. 336p $29.95

On the last page of Young Catholic America, the author concludes, “Committed and practicing Catholic emerging adults are people who were well formed in Catholic faith and practice as children, whose faith became personally meaningful and practiced as teenagers, and whose parents (reinforced by other supportive Catholic adults) were the primary agents cultivating that lifelong formation” (italics in original). The rest of the book maps why there may be so few of them.

Having taught psychology, religion and ethics at three public universities, I can report that a majority of the multigenerational and multiethnic students who took my courses self-identified as former Catholics. Evangelicals brought fervor to discussions and composed essays using biblical quotations and popular pulpit wisdom. With gratitude for an eye-opening semester, the Latter-Day Saints students gave me inscribed copies of their Book of Mormon. Others spoke of a vague spirituality enabling them to be “comfortable” in and with their lives. The Catholic students, as this book’s sub-title about “emerging adults” (i.e., ages 18 to 23) signals, were mostly out of faith and gone.

Young Catholic America describes the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by telephone surveys and personal interviews for three waves (2002-3, 2005, 2007-8) of a longitudinal study. The respondents were 13 to 17 years old at the beginning and 18 to 23 at the last data collection point. Parents, pastors and ministers of religious education and higher education and secondary school educators will find here thought-provoking sociology-of-religion explanations for how, when and why this sample of young people became who they are and what they don’t believe and don’t do any more.

The authors’ social science and multivariate evaluations are top-notch and accessible to an educated reader. The interpretive commentaries would have been sharpened by scientific research from psychology and education on cognitive, affective and moral development. Additional expertise in newer qualitative research strategies, especially with personal narratives, would also have helped.

Baby boomer readers may gasp at the historical analysis of their parenting summarized in Chapter 1. Centrifugal forces from 1970 to 2000 generated increasing pluralism in American thinking, labeled by these authors as a “vulgar version of post-modernism.” (One of my true-believer science editors labeled postmodernism the “anthrax of the intellect.”) With truth and standards fragmented in the larger culture—the center did not hold—its effects exacerbated values conflicts within the church in the United States. The authors declare at fault “the inability, and sometimes unwillingness of the parents of the Catholic and ex-Catholic emerging adults we studied—and those half a generation earlier—to model, teach and pass on the faith to their children. At precisely the same moment, older, more communal, taken-for-granted forms of religious practice and catechesis were eroding and sometimes collapsing in American Catholicism.”

Chapter 2 supplements history with cross-sectional data leading to three somber conclusions from studies completed between 1970 to 2000. First, 18- to 25-year-old Catholic emerging adults showed little to no changes in their beliefs, attitudes or practices. Second, the Catholic samples exhibited the same stagnation as their non-Catholic peer groups. Third, Catholic youth declined in church attendance significantly over this 30-year period.

In Chapter 3, the authors present a statistical portrait of Catholic emerging adults from the last decade. In Chapter 4, respondents’ voices offer anecdotal understandings of faith and church. Not surprisingly, multiple and substantive interactions with the Catholic faith contributed to an identification with it, and was the best predictor of religious practices. Of the 41 respondents who identified in the first wave survey (2002-3) as Catholics or who were raised in Catholic families, 29 were out and gone five years later; 12 reported “engaged” behaviors. No respondent met the researchers’ standard to be classified as “devout” (i.e., practices faith regularly, able to articulate Catholic doctrine and compare and contrast it with other religions, believes church teachings and expects continuing commitment).

The interviewees’ quotes seemed chosen to eke out glimmers of hope. The collective stories were “not particularly positive,” but did not portend “a completely ‘lost-generation’ for the Church,” because “a significant minority” are engaged Catholics and “are planning lives in which they will pass their Catholic faith on to their children.”

This optimism is not warranted by the data. I recognized the shallow and uncritical thinking patterns in the interviewees’ responses. Twenty-five years ago, higher education’s assessment programs documented students’ incapacity to communicate, even in the most superficial ways, what they had learned from their liberal arts requirements—a university community’s core faith. Dreadful retention and graduation rates rivaled those reported in this study. After much foot-dragging and blaming the ignorant, faculty members focused on what and how students learned, coherent critical thinking and the integration of conceptual principles with applied practice (e.g., service learning grounded in one’s major). Higher education had to acknowledge its flawed assumptions about teaching and learning and focus on student outcomes, challenging faculty self-assurances about knowing better or more.

According to this study, three factors foster increased religiosity. First, teens must have strong bonds to religiously committed and supportive family and friends. Second, beliefs must be internalized; faith ought to be a person’s most useful compass for daily decisions, despite myriad secular guides that saturate their life experiences. Third, as Aristotle noted about civic virtue, faith’s principles must be learned first and then behaviorally practiced often.

My “former Catholic” students were always hungry for demanding but nonjudgmental conversations with a committed adult. They developed diverse and sturdy moral compasses with the help of my support and plain-speaking critiques. I saturated them with systematic opportunities to articulate their thinking and then to practice their principles. Faculty members with ecumenical faith commitments at Fordham University taught me this process when I was an undergraduate.

My hope for prodigals—whether “in” or “out”—and their children rests in our new pope’s example and his invitation to learn deeply and practice regularly Micah’s prophetic formula: act justly, always be merciful and walk humbly before your God.

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