Has the Church lost our young?

In parishes all over our archdiocese and the nation, a new season of religious education is beginning. Thousands of adult Catholics have volunteered that time and energy to instruct our children and teenagers what it means to be a follower of Christ. Catholic parents, committed to our faith, are delivering their children to after Mass or evening classes. However, despite the good intentions of teachers and parents, a stark question looms: Is it working? Are our current efforts to past on our faith to the next generation of Catholics bearing fruit?

Recent history strongly suggests the faith of Catholics has been fragile in the face of America’s late 20th century materialism and culture. On most social indicators, such as divorce and church attendance, Catholic Americans look pretty much like their neighbors. In addition, recent surveys reveal that one out of three Catholics has abandoned the Church.

Even more troubling, however, is the picture that is revealed in Christian Smith’s “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” which has just come out in paperback and also as a movie. The book is based on a 2005 study, which is the largest and most rigorous study of the religious formation of U.S. teenagers involving 3370 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 and a sample of their parents. Twenty-three percent of the teenagers identified themselves as Catholics.

Based on Smith and his team’s extensive analyses, the researchers came to a number of findings. For instance:

--The vast majority of U. S. teenagers have very conventional religious views, strikingly close to those of their parents. They tend to be very positive about religion with only a small minority who are alienated and rebellious about religious involvement.

--Contrary to popular cultural stereotypes, the single most important influence on the religious lives of American youth is their parents.

--The more a church does by way of outreach (i.e., instruction, youth-oriented programs, camps, opportunities and challenges to teenagers) the greater the positive impact on its teenagers. The greater the effort to reach out to teens, the greater the religious “harvest.”

--While religion is still a significant presence in the lives of most American teenagers, overall the level of religious and spiritual understanding of American teens is very low. Most had great trouble articulating the tenets of their faith. The researchers described the dominate faith of American youth as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a faith they describe as suited “for our culturally, post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalistic society”.

Clearly, the finding that most startled the sociologists of religion who conducted this study was the relatively lower level of religiosity and laxity of Catholic teenagers compared with teenagers in other U.S. Christian traditions. Among their findings is that when compared with Conservative Protestants, Black Protestants and Mormons, Catholic teens:

-- Have lower levels of attendance at religious services and report less willing to attend if totally up to themselves;

-- Report that their religion is less important in shaping their daily lives and life decisions;

-- Find themselves substantially less close to God;

-- Believe less that God is a personal being involved in the lives of people today;

-- Believe less in miracles, the existence of angels, and life after death;

-- Believe more in reincarnation, astrology and in psychics and fortune-tellers.

It is difficult not to conclude that this is a troubling picture. Of course, to blame the tens of thousands of religious educators who give their time would be unfair. While they typically receive minimal training and few materials, they give their best by example and by instruction. Still, the report provokes a number of questions:

-- Is the current program up to the task of countering the intellectual and spiritual ravages of young Catholics’ hedonistic, but richly entertaining media world? And can it contend with the unrelenting secular world view promoted by the public schools?

-- Is the one-hour-a-week program (for what turns out to be less than twenty-five weeks a year) adequate to teach the Gospels and the truths of the Catholic Church?

-- Is the Church ready to evaluate and rethink our current program and use its resources to put in place a religious education program up to this most essential task?

Given that the primary teachers of religious faith are parents, we have a further task to look closely at what is taught in religious education classes. As teachers we can also ask what are the outcomes of our children’s instruction. We want our children to become faithful, lifelong Catholics. While we do not know of longitudinal studies which indicate how effective current instruction has been, there is ample informal data that many of the young have drifted away from the Church and its teachings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that teaching materials have been short on substance. Religious instruction has been characterized as happy hour without the beverage. Of course, this is not true everywhere. There are exceptions. In places where parents have taken an active role there are other outcomes. Parents, therefore, should ask for essential and required content in the religious education classes.

Here are some core curriculum needs:

-- A serious exposure to Scripture

-- An appreciation of our Church’s rich history

-- Understanding of moral theology

-- Gaining of appreciation of the lives of the saints

Finally, and again, we have nothing but admiration and respect for the men and women engaged in educating our children in the faith. We do, however, question whether or not the current form content of our religious education program is up to the job. Ours is an inspiring spiritual history full of compelling ideas and captivating stories. Our children need and deserve to learn the full measure of the Catholic faith.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.