Monday, August 3, 2015

A National Study of Former Young Catholics Reveals Key Insights for Parish Leaders and Parents

In the early 2000s Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, two sociologists at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, surveyed 3,000 plus U.S. teenagers and their parents. In their recent study, Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults, they focused on emerging adults who were self-identified as Catholic when they were teenagers but later dropped that Catholic identity. The findings from this decade-long study reveal key insights for parish leaders and families that seek to pass on the faith to youth. Interestingly, the researchers hasten to add that “we find both causes for concern and reasons to hope.”

Stronger Than Culture:

The good news is that although the influences of secular culture are powerful and widespread, the loss of faith is not inevitable. In fact, the strongest ally the Church has in raising up disciples for Jesus Christ is the family. Manglos-Weber and Smith go so far as to say that they can “anticipate quite accurately whether a given teenager will continue to identify as Catholic into emerging adulthood based primarily on what we know about the religious home environment in which they were raised.” 

If, for instance, parents were religiously consistent, committed, vocal, and reasonably well educated, the chances of their son or daughter retaining the faith into emerging adulthood significantly increases. To be sure, speaking regularly of the faith at home, regular Mass attendance, parish community involvement and having close friends who are religious, all contribute to a strong religious identity during the young adulthood years. What is equally important, however, is the quality of relationships adolescents have with their parents. 

"Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s. Greater relational distance between parents and teens increases the chance that the latter will leave the Church in emerging adulthood."

What this study confirms is that “whether or not emerging adults are aware of it, they continue to understand and evaluate religion in reference to the models they were given growing up.” After all, it is the mother and the father that serve as the image of God for their children. It is through this image that a child understands the world, God and himself. Indeed, the manner in which parents model religion for their children is decisive.

This is why in the Declaration of Christian Education, a document from the Second Vatican Council, it says, “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.” (1965)

The one key insight that this report offers for parish leaders and families is that the faithful and consistent witness of parents can have a greater impact on their children than the secular culture itself. This is good news. As Manglos-Weber and Smith remind us, “These results also correct impressions that emerging adults’ loss of faith is inevitable or random.”

Areas of Interest for Parishes and Parents:

Many parishes throughout the Diocese of Green Bay are actively seeking out parents, presenting them with opportunities to be evangelized and catechized. If adult faith formation for parents was considered to be optional in the past, it is becoming clearer from what we know today that equipping parents to be the primary evangelists and educators of their own children is imperative. The future of the Church depends on it. Furthermore, from reading the study, Understanding Former Young Catholics, we can identify characteristics of home environments where there was enough religious momentum for teenagers to retain the faith into the emerging adulthood years (to read a summary of the findings in their own words, please scroll down). To this end, efforts of adult faith formation and sacramental preparation can assist parents in the following areas:

1. Modeling religion for teenagers. Modeling religion begins and ends with the person of Jesus Christ. It is important for youth to know that religious observance is an expression of this relationship, not its substitute.

2. Consistency of religious expression. Personal prayer, saying grace before meals and family prayer on a daily basis reinforces the relationship teenagers have with Jesus Christ.

3. Speaking about Jesus Christ and discussing spiritual and moral issues at home. Parents can use the media (i.e. news, television programs and the social media) as opportunities to talk about the faith so that faith is both relevant and personal in their lives.

4. The social dimension of faith. A growing number of emerging adults are critical of organized religion. Yet, gathering as a people of God on the Sabbath to hear the Word, to participate in the Eucharist and to fellowship with believers supports and nourishes the personal dimension of faith.

5. Emotional closeness to children. Parents can be actively religious, but if they are not investing time in forming a close and trusting relationship with their children, then imparting the faith to them is likely to be compromised.

In our parish ministries and homes, we can ask ourselves: Are we demonstrating in concrete ways how the social dimension of faith completes the personal dimension of faith for teenagers and emerging adults?

American Emerging Adults:

No doubt, there are concerns that are duly noted in the study, Understanding Former Young Catholics. The fact is that many parents who have their teenagers attend parish programs and Catholic schools are not religiously consistent, committed, vocal, and reasonably well educated. Ideals are worthy of pursuit but parish leaders, catechists and educators often inherit circumstances that are far from ideal.

It is unfortunate that there are not a few teenagers who either come from families that attend Mass every Sunday but nothing more; or they come from families who do not attend Mass at all. Regardless of background, the Church is presented with opportunities to better equip teenagers to transition into emerging adulthood as disciples of Christ. In order to carry out this mission, Manglos-Weber and Smith proposes to the Church to “understand them in their particular place in life and to seek them out.”

To actively seek them out is a must! Why? More than previous generations, today’s teenagers and emerging adults are skeptical of organized religion. Perhaps, one can argue that our religiously pluralistic society has had a relativistic effect on youth. According to the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, many of those surveyed see religious subjects as having two sides. Religious certainty is no longer considered to be a virtue. In fact, for them to express an aversion to spiritual or moral absolutes is not all that uncommon. “To believe in only one religion or profess only one version of God implies, in the minds of many emerging adults, that these other people are in error or will be judged by God. This makes it difficult for them to accept the idea that only one religious faith tradition represents the full truth.”

Relativism, especially among youth, is becoming a real challenge for the Church’s mission. If, for instance, Jesus Christ is not the way, the truth and the life but is, instead, one of many religious leaders, then the same can be said for the Church. In a word, if all religions are equally important, then they are equally unimportant. Pope Leo XIII cautioned about the effects of this kind of relativism in 1885, “To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice.” (Immortale Dei: On the Christian Constitutions of States). It should not surprise us, then, that American Emerging Adults are struggling to see the value of organized religion; including the need to attend Mass at the local parish.

Although religious certainty and confidence are not highly esteemed virtues in a pluralistic society, I do believe it is a needed virtue if Catholicism is to become attractive to youth again. After all, Jesus radiated these virtues in the Gospels. They served him well.

Below is an excerpt (verbatim) on the Manglos-Weber and Smith’s conclusions on the findings from their decade-long study of Catholic youth who retained their faith into emerging adulthood.

Conclusions: Implications for Forming Committed Catholic Youth

Catholic adults who are interested in keeping children raised in the Church still connected to Catholic faith and practice into their 20s ought to note these facts [to read more about the summary points, consult pages 24-25 of the report]:

1. Leaving the Catholic Church rarely means becoming an atheist.

2. The effective formation of Catholic youth today need not obfuscate or compromise Church teachings, but will likely best convey them in an open, confident, exploratory, and dialogical mode.

3. It makes a difference whether children have parents of the same religious faith or of mixed or changing religious faiths.

4. Most Catholic youth today are growing up in environments of major religious pluralism, which can make them hesitate to make strong religious commitments themselves.

5. Many Catholic youth, like their peers, have been convinced that religious faith and modern science are locked in an inevitable war in which science always wins.

6. Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s.

7. Young Catholics whose parents regularly attend Mass, are involved in their parishes, and who talk with their children about religious faith are more likely to remain Catholic themselves, compared to those whose parents are less involved in Church and who talk less about religious matters.

To learn more about the American Emerging Adult, I would encourage you to read Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults. It is a short read. Again, I am confident you will find both causes for concern and reasons to hope.

This article is sponsored by the Department of New Evangelization at the
Diocese of Green Bay.