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Why Are They Leaving: The Stories of Disaffiliated Youth


By Joanna Thurmann

Take an average Sunday Mass in the Diocese and in Catholic parishes throughout the nation. You are likely to find continually fewer young people in attendance. The majority leave before age 21; with a median age of 13. They are “going, going, gone,” said Bob McCarty, D. Min., in a talk at the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference 2017 held Nov. 3-4 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. A national study conducted by CARA and Saint Mary’s Press in 2015 can tell us why. It looked at the dynamics of disaffiliation among young Catholics.

About half of those leaving become unaffiliated “Nones” who are spiritual but not religious or who do not believe in God or religion at all. The other half identify with a Protestant denomination. Many of them lacked Catholic education and parish formation.

But beyond statistics, the study aimed to learn the nuance of their stories, and the youth were grateful to share. They had often made a thoughtful and deeply reflective choice to leave the faith; one that often left them crushed, confused and alone. “It was as if no one cared that I left,” expressed one participant. Therefore, McCarty noted, the important questions are whether we miss them and whether they know that we do.

Among the dynamics of disaffiliation is drifting away. Drifters had shallow engagement or connection to the community. The secularization of culture places faith and religion as just one choice among many. The belief is that “I can be ethical without religion.” So they often ask themselves, “why does faith matter?” Yet when asked who in their lives self-identifies as Catholic, 61 percent of respondents said their grandparents. Thus, fostering a closer connection with the older generation may be the key to answering that question of why faith matters over the course of a lifetime.

Another group are “dissenters” who express active resistance to the Church. They have unanswered questions about Catholic teaching such as birth control or what they perceive as literal interpretation of the Bible. “Here we have an opportunity for better catechesis,” said McCarty.

And then there are the “injured and damaged.” They may have prayed for someone who died anyway or they may see the way the Church treats the LGBTQ community. They perceive this as an issue of human dignity and social justice rather than human sexuality. McCarty said it’s important to recognize that “they are sitting on these big theological questions of why does God allow suffering, does God love me, will God forgive me?” The faith community is challenged to create opportunities for young people to ask their questions, listen to peers, and explore faith responses.

To help them along, we must also let the joy of the Gospel shine in our own lives and not be grumpy Catholics, chuckles McCarty.

And ultimately, we cannot look at the “sorta Catholics” and “Catholic-ish” merely as a problem to be solved. “Disaffiliation is not a youth or young adult problem. It is about how we pass on faith to the next generations,” said McCarty. The theme of the Faith Formation Conference reminds us that God is always with us. Thus we must recognize the grace that these disaffiliated people carry. What is the Holy Spirit telling the Church through their life stories?