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Catholicism and “Nones”: The data on youth and young adults

Catholic campus ministry programs at secular institutions may provide the most immediate channel through which to spark more vigorous discussion among young adults concerning the limits of science and the role of faith.

World Youth Day pilgrims hold candles during eucharistic adoration with Pope Francis at the July 30, 2016 prayer vigil at the Field of Mercy in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

Last year’s news was packed with reports of polling results.  Debates over what the data reveal and how best to respond to what they portend saturated talk shows and opinion pieces.

Most of the chatter, of course, concerned matters presidential.  Buried within all the noise about the race for the White House though, a series of surveys sounded out a different set of results with particular significance for the Catholic landscape in America.  With the campaign of 2016 now in the rear view mirror, and with the 2018 synod of bishops starting to appear on the horizon, an examination of reports released in the latter half of last year by the Pew Research Center and The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), respectively, is in order.  A comparison of the results of these surveys reveal some alarming consistencies that, while giving rise to concern, suggest a path forward toward fostering the faith of today’s younger generations.

The Pew survey was a follow-up to its 2015 report (discussed elsewhere in an earlier article) that revealed a sharp rise in the US adult population of ‘nones’—those identifying either as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.  This religiously unaffiliated group grew from just over 16% of the US adult population in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014.  Most of the ‘nones’ have roots in organized religion.  Nearly 80% reported having been raised within a particular religious tradition.  It comes as little surprise then, that the increase in ‘nones’ paralleled a nearly eight percentage point decline in the number of Christians over the same period.  The Pew survey reported that Catholics were among segments of the Christian population that suffered the largest loss in numbers.

The news is cause for alarm.  Yet deeper concern for the future of the Church arises when taking into account the divergent paths in age demographic being taken by Catholics and ‘nones.’  The median age of ‘nones’ dropped to 36 from 38 during 2007 to 2014, while the median age of Catholic adults grew from 45 to 49 over the same period.  According to the data, Catholics are aging while the ‘nones’ are expanding their ranks among the young.

Pew set out to examine in further detail some of the reasons behind the growth of the ‘nones.’  The more recent report sets forth its results.  While the responses varied, topping the list of motives for ceasing the practice of any religion was the loss of faith.  Nearly half reported that a lack of belief triggered the decision to leave religion behind.  A frequently cited reason for the abandonment of religious practice was a perceived incompatibility of faith with science.

The results of CARA’s work dovetailed the recent Pew study and offered new information concerning younger Catholics.  CARA conducted two studies, one sponsored by St. Mary’s Press that surveyed US participants aged 15 to 25 who were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such, and another of self-identified US Catholic adults 18 and older, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Nearly two-thirds of participants in the youth and young adult study reported losing the faith between the ages of 10 and 17.  A startling number (23%) stated that they had ceased being Catholic before the age of 10.  Half of the surveyed group now self-identify as atheist, agnostic or without any religious affiliation – each a segment of the religious ‘nones’ highlighted in the adult-focused Pew studies.  These results, combined with Pew’s work, presage a trend toward an even younger median age of ‘nones’ to compliment anticipated future growth in the category.

As in the Pew study, participants frequently cited a lack of belief as a leading reason for the loss of religious identity.  Half of the youth and young adults surveyed identified ceasing to believe as either “somewhat” or “very” important to their decision to leave the Church.  Here again also, science was found to play a significant role.  The verbatim responses revealed a widely-shared perception of discontinuity between faith and science among younger ex-Catholics.

The results of the second CARA study offer some insight into how the flow of younger persons leaving the Church might be curtailed.  The survey of Catholic adults suggests that formal engagement with Catholic ministry earlier in life, whether through enrollment in a Catholic primary or secondary school, college or university, or through participation in a parish-based catechetical, youth or young adult program, has bearing on one’s ability to reconcile the claims of modern science with the Catholic faith.  For example, CARA’s results reveal that only 22% of those who were not part of any formal Catholic educational program early in life believe that evolution is reconcilable with Catholicism.  This compares to 32% of those who attended Catholic primary and secondary schools, and 42% of those who attended a Catholic college or university, who find evolution compatible with their faith.

The study also suggests that adult Catholics who engaged in Catholic programming earlier in life are more aware of differences between their faith and other Christian religions who espouse beliefs less commensurate with scientific evidence.  Familiarity with the more robust Catholic approach toward scripture, for example, is referenced in the study as a factor that contributes to a wider grasp of how faith and science compliment one another.

The results of all of these studies leaves much unanswered.  For example, the evidence that each has unearthed regarding the potential role of science does not probe the extent to which a new awareness of scientific claims caused the loss of faith, or whether the awareness of scientific theories is an excuse to legitimize a general sense of apathy or some other reason to drop a religious commitment.  Moreover, data regarding participation rates in formal Catholic programming among younger ex-Catholics would be helpful toward identifying the strength of any link between these programs and an ability to reconcile faith with modern scientific claims.

Nonetheless, a comparison of the results does provide some direction as to where it may be wise to focus resources and attention in the future.  A renewed emphasis on the complimentarity of science and religion within both Catholic schools and parish-based youth and young adult ministries would be a worthwhile endeavor.

However, the potential for any success of such an effort is limited by the reach of those programs.  According to CARA, youth and young adult engagement with Catholic programming has been declining for several years.  CARA reports that among those born in 1982 or later (a typical age range for Millennials), and those born between 1961 and 1981, 42% and 38%, respectively, have never been enrolled in a Catholic school at any level or participated in ministry aimed specifically at youth or young adults.  These numbers are nearly double that (23%) of those born before 1961.  The various strategies aimed at recruitment may slow the decline or even increase enrollment and engagement in some instances, but renewed effort outside of these venues will be necessary in order to curb the growth of the ‘nones.’

One promising area for extending the Church’s ability to communicate to younger generations is its ministry on non-Catholic college campuses.  Catholic campus ministry programs at secular institutions may provide the most immediate channel through which to spark more vigorous discussion among young adults concerning the limits of science and the role of faith.  Well-publicized lectures and events coordinated between campus groups and outside Catholic organizations can be tailored to attract broad interest.  The Thomistic Institute, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has offered programming on the campuses of several leading secular colleges and universities over the last couple of years.  Specialized expert emphasis on the topic of Catholic faith and science through the efforts of the Magis Center and Thomistic Evolution represent attempts to engage the topic through online media.

Pope Francis has turned the Church’s focus toward youth and young adults by making them the theme of the next synod of bishops scheduled for the Fall of 2018.  The synod, to be sure, will attract less attention than the presidential election of 2016.  For the future of the Church however, the synod’s topic is no less pressing than the outcome of any election as religion appears to become increasingly unattractive to younger generations.

Arresting the growth of the ‘nones’ among youth and young adults should be a paramount concern of the synod.  A comparison of the Pew and CARA studies suggest that highlighting the harmony between the Catholic faith and science would contribute to that goal.

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About Fr. Thomas More Garrett, OP 4 Articles
Fr. Thomas More Garrett, OP, is a Dominican priest at Providence College, where he serves as associate vice president and associate general counsel. He also teaches courses on law and business.

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