Portrait of young Catholics sobering but vital

“Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church” is a fascinating but troubling book, for it paints a picture of young adults who are more inclined to abandon their Catholic Faith than to practice it.

The book is based on conclusions of the National Study of Youth and Religion that began in 2001. A first wave of data was collected from more than 3,000 teens 13-17 years old. A second wave gathered from most of the same people was gathered in 2005. A third wave was collected in 2007-08 with as many of the study respondents as possible, who by then were 18-23 years old, an age group the study calls “emerging adults.”

Culture shift

Today’s parents and grandparents may bristle at the book’s main conclusion that today’s young adults are very much like the two previous generations, many of whom stopped practicing the Faith themselves because of religious, social and cultural changes that exploded in the 1960s.

The authors explain it was in that decade that today’s grandparents were emerging adults who became so assimilated into American culture that they began to agree with public opinions and the beliefs of their non-Catholic peers, rather than looking to the Faith for guidance on moral and ethical issues.

Before the mid-20th century, most Catholic adults in this country were immigrants or the children of immigrants, with many living in urban areas heavily populated with other Catholics. A religious minority, Catholics were likely to attend Catholic schools, marry other Catholics and live day-to-day in a heavily Catholic environment. Thus, passing on the Faith happened rather organically.


Changes in society that followed World War II (1939-45) led to greater educational and socioeconomic opportunity and residential mobility for Catholics. As they moved up the social and economic ladder, Catholics went to college, worked in middle-class occupations, lived among non-Catholics and increasingly sent their children to public schools. Catholics became “highly inculturated” and embraced all that America had to offer, including “material prosperity, educational broadening, ecumenical tolerance, moral diversity, and liberal individualism.”

Also, during the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) introduced many changes into the Church, which demanded “strong, clear transmission and interpretation by the bishops to clergy, religious and lay faithful.” The Church in the United States did “a less than ideal job of instructing the faithful,” the authors write, resulting in “significant uncertainty and misunderstanding” affecting Church life and culture.

The ability to understand and transmit the Faith was complicated by a marked loss of vocations after Vatican II, meaning fewer priests, sisters and brothers in the classrooms. The falling numbers of religious to staff schools, coupled with meager financial giving by Catholics, resulted in massive school closings, even as the Catholic population was expanding.

Parental guidance

The National Youth Study did in-depth interviews with 41 of the 18- to 23-year-olds they had followed since their teen years and found that only 12 of them were still practicing their Faith.

The active Catholics tended to come from homes where the Faith was important to the parents. “Committed and practicing Catholic emerging adults are people who were well formed in Catholic faith and practice as children, whose faith became personally meaningful and practiced as teenagers, and whose parents (reinforced by other supportive Catholic adults) were the primary agents cultivating that life-long formation.”

On the other hand, the study found that those who had abandoned the Faith generally had parents who had detached from Catholicism themselves, although this was not always the case. The authors believe these findings are nationally representative.

Thus, the majority of today’s emerging adults seem to be simply following a pattern started by their grandparents in the 1960s and passed onto their parents. The result is quite alarming, for the authors found that most of today’s Catholic emerging adults are little different from their non-Catholic peers:

• They “do not use their Catholic faith as a key resource for arriving at any countercultural religious, social or ethical commitments.”

• Despite distinctive and strong Catholic Church teachings against abortion, birth control, capital punishment, suicide and divorce, their views on these issues “are nearly indistinguishable” from their non-Catholic counterparts.

• They see unmarried sex, heavy drinking and illegal drugs as simply “coming of age” activities in this culture, ignoring specific and strong Church condemnation of these acts. The one area where Catholic emerging adults differ from their non-Catholic peers is also bad news: Young Catholic adults attend church services even less frequently.

Positive influences

However, there is plenty of good news in the book and many lessons to be learned: Teaching and nourishing the Faith must begin in early childhood, not at confirmation time, and parents must consistently model the importance of the Faith in their own lives. This works best in families where both parents are Catholic, according to the study, which also found that a faith-filled father has the most influence on whether an emerging adult stays Catholic, for most youth take for granted that mothers are religious.

Other positive influences listed by the authors include Catholic schools, active and robust youth groups, compelling catechetical training and formative faith-deepening retreats. (However, the study also found that parishes provide little such programming for single young adults.) The outcomes for emerging adults who remain active in their faith are encouraging, for the study said that practicing Catholic young adults have better outcomes in crucial areas of physical and mental health and an overall feeling of well-being.

“Young Catholic America” can be dense reading at times, with plenty of charts and sociological analyses, but it is easily accessible to the non-expert reader who will gain plenty of insights from several in-depth interviews presented. The book also is full of practical ideas that may help reverse the decades-long trend of young people leaving the Faith.

Ann Carey writes from Indiana.