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Catholic teens in US mirror their peers on religious trends

By Matt Hadro for CNA

(Image: jessica kille |

Washington D.C., Sep 11, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic teenagers mirror American teenagers overall on many religious trends, a report by the Pew Research Center says.

A Pew report published Sept. 10 examined the religious identities and beliefs and American teenagers and their parents. “U.S. Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously, Attend Services Together and Enjoy Family Rituals,” Pew reported, but added that the teens usually do so “at parents’ behest” and many of them privately hold different beliefs.

The statistics show that Catholic teenagers are more likely to mirror teenagers overall in their religious beliefs than are Evangelical Christian teenagers.

Of teenagers ages 13-17 in the U.S., 24% say that religion is “very” important to them, and 36% say that it is “somewhat” important in their lives. Among Catholic teenagers, they are only slightly more likely (27%) say that religion is “very” important to them.

Substantially more Catholic teenagers (46%) say religion is “somewhat” important, than do their peers (36%). While 18% of teenagers overall say religion is “not at all” important to them, only 4% of Catholic teens answered this way.

And Catholics are only slightly more likely than their teenage counterparts overall to believe in God “with absolute certainty” (45% to 40%), and attend religious services weekly (40% to 34%). Only four-in-ten (41%) of Catholic teenagers say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, and 31% say that only one religion is true.

Meanwhile, Evangelical Christian teens are far more likely than Catholic teens to believe in God with certainty (71% to 45%), attend religious services weekly (64% to 40%), pray daily (51% to 27%) and say only one religion is true (66% to 31%).

Catholic teenagers also mirror teenagers overall in other trends, such as 54% of Catholics feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being compared to 50% of teens overall, and 50% of Catholic teens thinking about the meaning and purpose of life, compared to 46% of teens overall.

The Pew survey also confirms a growing trend of “nones,” or teenagers and young adults who are religiously-unaffiliated. One-third (32%) of teenagers surveyed are “nones,” with 6% identifying as atheist, 4% as agnostic, and 23% as “nothing in particular.”

The U.S. bishops’ evangelization committee chair, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, has discussed this trend of young Catholics leaving the faith and becoming religiously-unaffiliated.

In a presentation to the bishops at their 2019 fall meeting, Barron noted that many young people do not respond well to the Church’s teachings, especially on sex. However, they do manifest a strong sense of “social justice,” he said, and the Church should “propagate” its social teachings. He also emphasized that the Church should present the beauty in its liturgies, and “stop dumbing down the faith.”

And although teenagers might attend religious services at a similar rate as their parents, they differ from their parents on their religious views.

According to the Pew report, teenagers of parents who are Evangelical Christians, Catholics, or Unaffiliated, are likely to identify as the same. However, children of parents who are part of Mainline Protestant denominations are much less likely to identify as such; they are twice as likely (24%) to be religiously-unaffiliated than are their Evangelical counterparts (12%).

Of the teenage children of Catholic parents, 81% of them identify as Catholic but 15% are religiously-unaffiliated.

Teens are nearly half as likely as their religious parents to say that religion is very important in their lives, with 43% of parents answering that way to only 24% of teens. Of parents who said religion is “very important” in their life, only 45% of their teens answered the same, and 41% of the teens said religion was “somewhat important” to them

However, in households where parents say religion is not important to them, their teenagers are far more likely to hold the same religious priorities. Among parents who said religion was “not too important” or “not at all important” to them, 82% of their teenage children answered the same.

Religious parents are also more likely to desire that their child have a particular accomplishment, such as going to college or being financially successful, than being raised in the same religion, Pew reported.

Religiously-affiliated parents “are more likely to place high importance on their teen being hardworking, independent or helpful to others than they are to say it is very important that their teen is raised in their religion,” the report said.

And among Christian parents, Catholic parents were more likely than their Protestant peers to say it is “very important” that their teen goes to college (83% to 66%) and is financially successful (75% to 67%).

Meanwhile, only 62% of Christian parents answered that it is very important that their teen be obedient, and only 51% of Catholic parents said it is very important to raise their child in their religion, compared to 58% of Protestant parents overall.

As far as the religious education of teenagers, Catholic teens are about as likely as Christian teens overall to have been in a religious education program (72% of Catholics to 74% of Christians). However, 43% of these Catholics said they attend rarely or do not go any more. Meanwhile, 49% of Catholic teenagers answered that they have been part of a youth group.

Older teens are “somewhat less likely” to say they attend religious services regularly, Pew reported.

Political affiliation of households also stands out with respect to religious practice.

“Teens whose parents identify with or lean toward the Republican Party seem to be more religiously engaged by some measures than those whose parent is a Democrat or Democratic-leaner,” Pew reported.

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  1. What does it mean, really, that the young “do not respond well to the Church’s teachings, especially on sex,” but that they do “manifest a strong sense of ‘social justice,’” and that “the Church should present the beauty in its liturgies, and ‘stop dumbing down the faith’” (Bishop Barron at the 2019 meeting of bishops)?

    Beauty does not substitute for truth. Do seminaries teach HISTORY? Or, cite the likes of de Lubac’s Drama of Atheistic Humanism? In the secular world—-awards for attendance, grade inflation, STEM, identity politics, virtual reality, and designer jeans. INTELLECTUAL GENOCIDE…Spiritual hollowness anesthetized by sensate education. Teens all born after and with no memory of or exposure to 9/11. Like Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the abortion culture, it isn’t real.

    “The [fading] West believes that man’s destiny is prosperity and an abundance of goods. So does the Politburo.” (Politburo, what’s that?) And, this too, from Whittaker Chambers who still had a pulse:

    “…the PARADOX that this gift [the gift of life] is given to man in a garden infested not by the affably tempting Snake of Genesis, but a garden where under every flower and leaf swarm live cobras and pit vipers. This paradox we phrase as ‘the problem of evil.’ There are ONLY TWO MAIN ANSWERS TO IT. One is that resignation which is at the heart of every great religion (“In His Will is our peace.”) The other is the foreclosure of the problem itself by the rejection of God, which is Communism’s [and slow-motion Socialism’s] solution” (essay in Cold Friday, 1964).

  2. Teens, and everyone, really, need to be presented with the beautiful truths of the Catholic faith, and be exposed to Liturgy the way it’s meant to be. No more stupid, non-sacred music, no more secular fluffy homilies, no more extended delay of Confirmation, no more directors of religious ed hassling new parents trying to schedule a baptism, no more Catholic schools that are barely different from the public one two blocks away…

    I’ll stop now. St. Dominic Savio, pray for us.

    • Who’s going to pay for such talented and competent and knowledgeable parish staff? You can start again; I’m waiting to hear. The reason Church ministries are so poor is because the church pays poverty wages. You want Google-level excellence? Pay Google-level salaries.

      • This is totally true, and I agree with you. And therein lies another issue: Make Mass the priority. It doesn’t cost anything for the pastor to say Mass correctly nor to give a decent homily. It’s his vocation, for crying out loud. Promote the sacraments. Preach the truths of the faith.

        Many of the ministries are done with volunteers or low-paid, barely trained people. But what are all these ministries for? Good Liturgy should be the focus. I think the best place to start paying better wages would be with the music for the Liturgy, since Mass is central to a parish. Hire a professional musician and bring back chant and sacred music. Those people also know how to start and train choirs. They generally don’t like the low-quality music that we’ve all suffered through either.

        Ultimately, it is the parents’ responsibility to educate their children in the faith. If they aren’t knowledgeable, the pastor can start an adult catechism class. We don’t need “youth ministers” that are nothing more than glorified babysitters, pushing re-packaged “Life Teen” nonsense. We need parents to do their jobs and take back their God-given responsibilities.

        As for the rest of the staff, unless there can be dedicated folks who see their jobs as a labor of love, then yeah, it’s a question of feasibility. What’s new?

  3. These numbers seem consistent with a destroyed Catholic Culture. It will will lower in the next generation, unless somehow the Catholoic culture is revived.

  4. The ‘paradigm shift ‘ heard mentioned in relation to the Holy Father could very well be in the realm of the Divine Will revelations , which in turn would be even needed , to capture the hearts of the young who are so used to all sorts of imagery .
    Thank God that The Church has been thus so well provided for and the efforts to make it an ordinary part of spiritual life , to help to have deeper insights into the Word as well could very well be the answer for the spiritual distancing of many .
    The trust that the desire to wear the crown of holiness in ‘little steps ‘ and not having to climb steep mountains as the answer for the prayer for the reign of the Father’s Will – let us hope that we see the Kingdom coming in power amidst us all and soon .

  5. The main problem is this: teens are realizing the Church offers them nothing that matters, nothing that improves their lives, nothing that makes a difference, nothing that they can’t get or have without the Church. To them Church seems like a bunch of silly, obsolete, fairy-tale mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with real world living and real world problems. But Google, Apple, Uber, Tesla actually improve people’s lives. Teens realize that they can be good people without Church, and there’s the chief obstacle to overcome. Why is the Church needed? Why do they need the Church? Convince them Church is needed for something important, and they’ll come back. If you don’t have an answer that really matters, really changes their lives, they won’t come back. Church will consist of three people in adoration on Thursday mornings, and six people in their 70s praying the rosary before early morning daily Mass.

  6. The virus can serve the young too , to relate well , to the wounds that all carry – in its imagery like a little ball of crown of thorns , its pervasiveness , through the body …as a reflection of the ‘ little ‘ crowns of thorns that almost all carry , in the many give and take occasions of wounding words , thoughts and deeds ..

    The image The Lord desires for us to have , seeing all with compassion , as wounded little children , covered in wounds and thorns through and through , inside and out ..seeking His help –

    The Trinity , having foreseen our times , with its pervasive ways of idolatry of various sorts , blessed us with the crown of truth of His goodness and power that He wants to share with us all , as The Divine Will ..

    The truth in the words of the Holy Father , about the oneness in the wounds thus to ring out with more clarity , to also help undo the fires – from the corona of pride and greed and all , by trusting in the power of The Blood and Water instead !

    • When polls distinguish between Mass-going Catholics and nominal Catholics, results are always very different. I believe that if this poll had separated out teens who go/went to Catholic schools, the difference would be palpable.

      • You mean those who attended Catholic schools would have fared worse in measures of faith than those who attended non-Catholic schools? I used to teach in a Catholic school, and let me tell you the only thing Catholic about it was the name. I highly doubt even 3% of graduates practice the faith. Only 15% were practicing when they were enrolled.

        • With your attitude, I don’t doubt the school wasn’t too Catholic.
          For people who are open to data, check out the concrete, demonstrable facts about contemporary graduates of Catholic schools in terms of Mass attendance, openness to a religious vocation, willingness to serve the Church.

          • With my attitude? I was one of only three faithfully Catholic, orthodox teachers in the whole high school and administration. There were gay married faculty, abortion-supporting faculty, gay propaganda at school assemblies, and the religion department, in which I taught, had only one other faithful Catholic besides me: everyone else in the religion department dissented on all the predictable doctrines and they refused to teach Catholic faith as the truth to students: it was merely the Church’s perspective with which people could disagree for whatever reason and no biggie. I wrote to the bishop about Beatles music at Mass and teachers being openly married in gay marriages, and the promotion of other world religions in prayer as if they were true. The bishop did nothing. I was run out of the school.

            As far as data, the sociologist Christian Smith in his book “Young Catholic America” found that attendance at a Catholic school has zero effect on future Catholic practice.

            Father, respectfully, I think you do not know what you are talking about.

            I know what I lived through working in a phony Catholic school, and I know the research about the faith habits and beliefs of Catholic teenagers and young adults.

        • Hi Carol,

          Thanks for your comment. What’s interesting is that the empirical evidence suggests otherwise – to wit, if a child goes to a Catholic school, he / she is seven times more likely to practice his / her faith as an adult versus if they went to either public or charter Schools. Certainly, the number can always be higher and many Catholic schools can do better, but Catholic schools overall are a lot more efficacious than other options available.

          I’d ask you to take a look at the following document for the quotations / references. It would be nice if more (arch)dioceses would emulate what is happening in the Archdiocese of Detroit where they’re really focusing on Catholic identity:

          • Things have really changed then. My husband’s four siblings all went to Catholic school (pre-Vat II). Three are divorced–one remarried civilly, two in permanent non-marital relationships. None sought a Declaration of Nullity. None of the four practice any kind of organized faith.
            My husband went to public school. Only he remains a practicing Catholic.

          • That’s not what Christian Smith’s sociological research has shown. In his book “Young Catholic America,” he found that attendance at a Catholic school had no statistical impact on future Catholic religious practice. The example of parents being faithfully Catholic was the single most decisive influence and predictor of future religiosity.

  7. DJH,
    That’s a terrible shame about your husband’s
    family. We each have differing outcomes as far as Catholic education and faith retention but I think as others have commented, the type of Catholic school can make a difference.
    If you apply the question to older teens in colleges, I think the type of Catholic education is even more relevant to faith retention.

    • I am aquainted with one homeschool family that sent their oldest son to my husband’s Catholic Liberal Arts Alma Mater. My husband graduated in the early 70’s. Said son graduated about 2016 (?) and now trolls his deeply Catholic mother on FB. I am not sure if he is hard left, but he certainly comes off as deeply cynical, almost hateful in what appears to be a “seemless garment” kind of Catholicism. Assuming he even considers himself Catholic.
      I know some other who graduated the same college in the early 2000’s. Very fine people, but unchurched.

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