Why Catholics are leaving the faith by age 10 – and what parents can do about it

Young Catholics are leaving the faith at an early age – sometimes before the age of 10 – and their reasons are deeper than being “bored at Mass,” the author of a recent report claims.

“Those that are leaving for no religion – and a pretty big component of them saying they are atheist or agnostic – it turns out that when you probe a bit more deeply and you allow them to talk in their own words, that they are bringing up things that are related to science and a need for evidence and a need for proof,” said Dr. Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

“It’s almost a crisis in faith,” he told CNA. “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.”

Gray recently published the results of two national studies by CARA – which conducts social science research about the Church – in the publication Our Sunday Visitor. One of the surveys was of those who were raised Catholic but no longer identified as Catholic, ages 15 to 25. The second survey was of self-identified Catholics age 18 and over.

In exploring why young Catholics were choosing to leave the faith, he noted “an emerging profile” of youth who say they find the faith “incompatible with what they are learning in high school or at the university level.” In a perceived battle between the Catholic Church and science, the Church is losing.

And it is losing Catholics at a young age. “The interviews with youth and young adults who had left the Catholic Faith revealed that the typical age for this decision to leave was made at 13,” Gray wrote. “Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 percent, said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the Faith before the age of 10.”

Of those who had left the faith, “only 13 percent said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church,” Gray wrote. And “absent any big changes in their life,” he said to CNA, they “are probably not coming back.”

The most common reason given for leaving the Catholic faith, by one in five respondents, was they stopped believing in God or religion. This was evidence of a “desire among some of them for proof, for evidence of what they’re learning about their religion and about God,” Gray said.

It’s a trend in the popular culture to see atheism as “smart” and the faith as “a fairy tale,” he said.

“And I think the Church needs to come to terms with this as an issue of popular culture,” he continued. “I think the Church perhaps needs to better address its history and its relationship to science.”

One reason for this might be the compartmentalization of faith and education, where youth may go to Mass once a week but spend the rest of their week learning how the faith is “dumb,” he noted.

In contrast, if students are taught evolution and the Big Bang theory at the same school where they learn religion, and they are taught by people with religious convictions, then “you’re kind of shown that there’s not conflicts between those, and you understand the Church and Church history and its relationship to science,” he said.

With previous generations who learned about both faith and science as part of a curriculum, that education “helped them a lot in dealing with these bigger questions,” he explained, “and not seeing conflict between religion and science.”

Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, who worked in youth ministry for four years, emphasized that faith and science must be presented to young people in harmony with each other.

A challenge, he explained, is teaching how “faith and science relate” through philosophy and theology. While science deals only with “what is observable and measurable,” he said, “the world needs something non-physical as its origin, and that’s how to understand God along with science.”

“It was the Christian faith that was the birthplace of science,” he continued. “There’s not a contradiction” between faith and science, “but it’s understanding each one in their own realms.”

How can parents raise their children to stay in the faith? Fr. Schneider cited research by Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who concluded that a combination of three factors produces an 80 percent retention rate among young Catholics.

If they have a “weekly activity” like catechesis, Bible study or youth group; if they have adults at the parish who are not their parents and who they can talk to about the faith; and if they have “deep spiritual experiences,” they have a much higher likelihood of remaining Catholic, Fr. Schneider said.

More parents need to be aware of their children’s’ beliefs, Dr. Gray noted, as many parents don’t even know that their children may not profess to be Catholic.

The Church is “very open” to science, he emphasized, noting the affiliation of non-Catholic scientists with the Pontifical Academy of Science, including physicist Stephen Hawking.

There is “no real conflict” between faith and science, Gray said.

“The Church has been steadily balancing matters of faith and reason since St. Augustine’s work in the fifth century,” he wrote.

“Yet, the Church has a chance to keep more of the young Catholics being baptized now if it can do more to correct the historical myths about the Church in regards to science,” he added, “and continue to highlight its support for the sciences, which were, for the most part, an initial product of the work done in Catholic universities hundreds of years ago.”
This article was originally published on CNA Sept. 5, 2016.

By Matt Hadro



  1. Peter Aiello Reply

    If faith is only defined as believing something that you can’t see; this is a problem. How does this type of faith have a meaningful impact on your life? Are you going to get “deep spiritual experiences” in this way?
    Religion is not supposed to compete with science. Each has its own scope.
    When children get away from Catholicism, do they abandon spirituality entirely, or do they start doing eastern mysticism or satanism? Biblical mysticism is the alternative, but it is generally not taught in Catholicism. The releasing of self to the Biblical Godhead has been replaced by Christian coated Buddhism and Hinduism.
    Scripture is where you find instruction on Biblical mysticism, but Catholics generally prefer to ignore Scripture. When you explore Scripture for the purpose of finding out what it has to say about inner peace and strength, you find verses that tell us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6-7) and to cast all of our care on the Lord (1Peter 5:5-7). This is just for starters. There is the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 that lists the effects of the Spirit of Christ in our lives.
    All of this is worth exploring. Your children might find it interesting.

  2. Tom Rafferty Reply

    What a way to start my day, reading such a positive story!!! “The Church has been steadily balancing matters of faith and reason since St. Augustine’s work in the fifth century” is a good example of the Church being left behind: a lot has changed in our understanding of reality through science since the ignorance and superstition of the 5th Century. Please note every suggestion to attack this welcome news involved trickery, indoctrination and a total failure to address the real issue: science is clear that there is no evidence for anything supernatural, much less the “Truth” of the Catholic Church.

  3. Thomas C Brechlin Reply

    I think this may be part f the problem but I believe the boer problem are the parents and their lack of knowledge of their faith and worse yet, their lack of being active in their faith. Getting these families to mass on Sunday shouldn’t be as much a problem as it is.

  4. Patrick Gannon Reply

    The article asks why young children are leaving the Church and points the finger at science – but what about the Church’s position on divorce? When I was 10 years old, I most definitely had no options as to whether I was a Catholic or not. Telling my dad that I wasn’t going to mass simply wasn’t an option unless I was sick. I’m thinking it’s later teens who voluntarily leave. As for the younger ones, how many of them are the result of the Church pushing away divorced Catholics? We’re told that up to 50% of marriages end in divorce. Taking your kids to mass and not taking communion, means explaining to your kid that you are a sinner, living in mortal sin if you have remarried and remained a vibrant, normal, healthy, happy, sexually active human being. That’s an uncomfortable thing to explain to your kid, so you leave the Church or go to another one. As part of this process, the parent’s faith is surely shaken as well, and science, logic and reason may be given to the child as reasons for leaving the Church. I wonder what percentage of these kids leave because of divorce (50% of marriages end in divorce), and not because science debunks the very reason for Christianity. In any event, I applaud the efforts of the Church to continue to disenfranchise those who divorce and remarry, if it continues to contribute to children not being psychologically abused by indoctrination before they are capable of critical thinking.
    Yes, the Church should address its relationship to science. Perhaps it could start with the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum” or prescribed reading list which Catholics were forbidden to read, starting with Bruno Giordano whose tongue was pierced with a stake, his jaws wired shut, and burned at the stake – in part for proposing that the stars in the sky were suns like our own, and that they had planets like our own circling them. Turns out he was right. Look at the List_of_authors_and_works_on_the_Index_Librorum_Prohibitorum and then tell me that the Catholic Church was a champion of science.
    The Church accepts science only up to the point where it disagrees with its own teachings. The Church insists on a 2-person DNA bottleneck, an Adam and Eve from whom we all descended – except that the DNA evidence does not support this. The evidence seems to insist that we evolved from a much larger pool – a few 10s of thousands – of early ancestors, and not just two. These ancestors never woke up in a paradisiacal garden. They woke up in the morning on the menu, and struggled to live another day and to reproduce. The original sin story is debunked by science, so the Church says the science is wrong. Duh. Go figure. Looking back at the list of proscribed authors, it seems that historically, it is the Church that has been consistently wrong.
    The author turns to the god of the gaps argument, suggesting that since we still can’t explain the origins of the universe and of life itself, that some god had to have done it. Patience, grasshopper. Patience. We’ll figure it out, and if it turns out that there is a god, then we’ll know and we won’t have to lie to ourselves, pretending to know things we don’t know. The author says there is no conflict between religion and science, but that’s nonsense when religion makes claims about the natural world that are based on magic and supernatural explanations. Science has every right to address those claims and test them.

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