Two national studies produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University, found that young Catholics are abandoning their faith starting around the age of 10, and certainly by age 17 (Confirmation catechists, please note!).
Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they no longer identify themselves as Catholics by the age 17, and another 23% said they stopped regarding themselves as Catholic by the age 10.
Of those who had left the faith, only 13% said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.
The reason most often given is the tension young people perceive between faith and religion. While this factor is highest among students at public school, it is also remarkably high among students at Catholic schools.
There is an emerging profile of youth who say their religious formation is incompatible with what they are learning in public high school or university.
Dr. Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA, speaks of an unprecedented “crisis of faith" among youth. “In the whole concept of faith, this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations." There is a severe compartmentalization between education in faith and in science. The fundamental problem is that youth may go to Mass once a week but spend the rest of the week learning “how dumb" their faith is.
On a positive note, Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, states that there are three factors that yield a high retention rate among young Catholics. The first is that the young people have a “weekly activity" like catechesis, Bible study, or youth group. The second is the availability of adults (not their parents) with whom they can discuss their faith. The third is the possibility of providing “deep spiritual experiences."
I am no sociologist of religion, least of all of that which deals with youth. But my own experience tells me that besides the three factors mentioned here, there are the three additional factors: There is daily prayer in the home, parents and children talking about their faith, and some kind of weekly charitable service made possible for the young people.
Some (like me!) worry about the quality of religious formation of children and youth. Things have improved a lot since the horrid days of religious formation in the 70s and 80s. But, having kept an eye on the kind of texts being used, even the better ones are inadequate. If you want your child to be well informed in the faith, then don’t look at the typical text available. We have a long way to go in this area. For one thing, we need to bring back a thoroughly updated question-and-answer catechism.
There is also the question of parish religious education teachers and Catholic school teachers. Would you be surprised to know that many of them do not go to Sunday Mass regularly and have “difficulties" with the Church? Surely this has to have a disastrous effect on the students for whom they have responsibility. I have seen no data on this, so I am basing what I say on what I have observed and read over the years and what other pastors tell me.
Finally, there are the parents, who rarely if ever talk to their children about the faith and the necessity of growing strong in it. And do parents, even of Catholic school children, go to Mass on Sundays? The vast majority, I fear, do not.
By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion