We Tahoans, probably like all rural people, share a common understanding when it comes to our young people: that it is important, maybe even essential, for them to leave home after high school, to go away to college or whatever else they intend to pursue. This understanding arises from the regularly witnessed stagnation of those who do the opposite, the narrowed horizons and expectations, the dead-end life goals and plans, the arrested growth of inertia, often leading, among other things, to partying as a sedentary lifestyle choice.
Those who grow up here often do indeed return, having seen what’s “out there,” and chosen what they know is here, but then as a more informed, enlightened decision. It may not always be a permanent decision, but it is a choice for something, rather than an absence of choice based on ignorance. Unsurprisingly, these “returnees” seem to find greater happiness and purpose than those who have never left.
A Rite of Passage?
The trouble for Catholics arises in that we allow ourselves to view our children’s faith journey in similar terms—almost expecting and condoning their choice to drift away from the faith we have guided them in forming. After all, many of us did the same thing—stopped going with our parents to mass, stopped practicing the sacraments on a regular basis, rationalizing our choices in myriad ways. When you’re young and impatient, critical and cocky, when you’re looking for stimulation and you find attending mass a chore, it requires only the smallest excuse to drift away. There are plenty of non-denominational and fundamentalist Christian assemblies around us to provide the missing stimulation as well as the ready-made critiques of the Catholic faith and they do an admirable job of reaching out to our young people; and in fairness to them, we ourselves have provided our young with plenty of excuses to grow disinterested. And so when I noticed that a high school senior, the son of our most kind-hearted and cheerful usher, has ceased attending mass with his parents, I was not alarmed or even surprised. I suspect I am not alone in this response. Perhaps we offer up a prayer for the young man’s eventual return—that the Holy Spirit will lead him home; perhaps we lament the lack of programs and services aimed at retaining our young adults; but that’s usually as far as it goes.
We do not challenge or question another family’s practice and devotion, for we are a private faith; after all, we are so aware of our own sin and guilt that we don’t presume to bring others’ failings to light. Indeed, we take solace in the idea that one must turn away, test the waters, explore the alternatives, in order to fully return a committed Catholic, offering up our stoic presence as a picture of humble and abject sacrifice. And when our own children begin to drift, we accept it as our cross to bear, rather than engaging in what would surely be a battle of wills fraught with the threat of pushing the child away from the Church even further. Without exception, it seems, we parents opt for something other than the tyranny of forced attendance, clinging to the hope that the child will one day return of his or her own volition.
Tacit acceptance is made easier by the conditioning performed on us by our secular reading and experience: for example, we read about Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha who travels far and wide, experiencing the spectrum of spiritual exaltation and degradation that life has to offer, ultimately finding that meaning and purpose, nirvana, had been right before him at the river from which he began. It is not lost on the reader that he would never have discovered this truth if he had not set out, and our understanding is formed around the idea that the leaving became necessary to the discovery and enlightenment. Moreover, Siddhartha’s experience strikes a chord with many of us who struck out on adventures of our own, searching for something indefinable (at least to ourselves), but knowing we wanted to see, to experience more, and that if we denied this “call,” we would have always wondered what we missed.
And so we come to embrace this notion of leaving while simultaneously growing desensitized to the accompanying break with one’s childhood faith as a natural part of growing up.
What the Studies Say
The process of decline I describe above is a subtle yet corrosive one, and there is no shortage of study and writing that attempts to capture and define the problem by listing reasons for it. Such attempts invariably reflect on the alarming trends and note the clichés that we all tend to reiterate when lamenting the tragic exodus in discussions among Catholic friends. I choose to enumerate them briefly here, not to affirm their accuracy, but to confess my own easy acceptance of them at times and in order to contrast them with my revised assessment that the answers lie in a different direction.
Citing first the sensational, fans of statistics have observed that “one in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic,” and thus ex-Catholics alone would form the third-largest denomination in the U.S. (Reese).
In a 2011 study involving 298 “non-churchgoing Catholics” in the Diocese of Trenton, NJ, Jesuit Father William Byron, professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, along with Charles Zech, professor of economics and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University’s business school, explored the reasons Catholics drift away from their faith. From this study—eventually titled “Empty Pews: Survey of Catholics Regarding Decrease in Mass Attendance”—Zech boiled the somewhat predictable responses down to a list of seven reasons Catholics leave church: in brief these seven are the “sex abuse crisis,” the church’s “stance on homosexuality,” “dissatisfaction with the priest,” “uninspiring homilies,” the perception that conservative politics influence church hierarchy, the church’s stance regarding divorce and remarriage, and finally, the “status of women” (Byron and Zech; summarized by Merica, Zimmerman).
Where the Studies Fall Short
The trouble with such studies is that they highlight the more publically visible and sensational concerns; they invite the obvious topics of discussion, which, though not to be dismissed, offer platitudes and clichés without clarifying why young people really drift away from Catholic worship.
I draw this inference for a couple reasons: this same study found that “most respondents were ambivalent if their departure was a conscious decision or not” (Zimmermann). If the reasons listed were compelling enough, wouldn’t respondents have indicated that such things drove them away? The study additionally noted that 86% of respondents believe a Catholic “can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church” (qtd. in Merica), again suggesting that those disaffected could have tolerated these individual failings if they were satisfied in a larger sense with their faith.
In the quest for answers, others go a bit deeper, such as the Rev. George W. Rutler, who points to a flawed faith formation, guided by a generation of parents who "have been spiritually malformed themselves" (qtd. in Lopez). Rutler also indicts schools, the “contemptible” level to which the liturgy “has sunk,” the “inane moralizing” of current preaching, the “suppression of the sacrament of reconciliation” by people who “hate the priesthood and the doctrine of personal sin” (qtd. in Lopez); while it’s true that these flaws exist, one has the feeling that they, too, obscure the real issue.
Getting at the Real Reasons
Perusing studies and articles on why Catholics leave the Church, one will quickly see that (despite items mentioned in studies like “Empty Pews” above), dissatisfaction with how the Church deals with spiritual needs and worship services dwarfs any disagreements over specific doctrines. In fact, the data shows that “People are not becoming Protestants because they disagree with specific Catholic teachings; people are leaving because the church does not meet their spiritual needs and they find Protestant worship service better” (Reese). I submit that in such comments, we can read “emotional” in place of “spiritual,” and “desires” in place of “needs,” almost without exception.
Offering what I consider the most resonant and accurate explanation for the exodus is Dennis Coday, editor for the National Catholic Reporter. He culled his analysis from a 2009 follow-up study to the well-known “Pew Report,” a 2007 study involving 35,000 Americans. Coday reports that the “vast majority of former Catholics” have, according to the Pew Forum report, “just gradually drifted away” (qtd. in Coday). Most commonly, the decision to leave “happened over time” rather than being “prompted by a one-time event” (Coday). Only about a quarter of respondents noted clergy sex-abuse scandals as an important reason for leaving the church, but when asked in an open-ended question, “less than 3 percent . . . cited pedophilia scandals as the main reason they left the church” (Coday). Coday concludes with Catholic Researcher, Mark Gray’s assessment that “The poster child of former Catholics is a disaffected teenager . . . This is about youth coming of age and not feeling connected to their faith” (qtd. in Coday). Indeed, from this most emotional period in our lives, we take away strong impressions that direct our adult decisions in ways we are often unaware of.
Illustrating my point is the universally recognizable experience shared by “Matthew,” which highlights the complex emotional element at work in the choice to forsake the Church: Matthew grew up in a practicing Catholic household and went to Catholic schools. He was raised, as many of us were, "with the indoctrination of how the Church was infallible, perfect, the sole authority of God" (qtd. in Lopez). Not surprisingly, as he grew older, “he began to wonder whether this corresponded to the Church he saw” (Lopez). Couple this disillusionment with the way in which another Christian faith—again true to form—made him "feel welcomed, valued, and affirmed," and you have the standard recipe for disenfranchisement (qtd. in Lopez). It has become almost pointless to speculate “how many there are who end up in 'Bible churches' because they find fellowship, scriptural preaching and teaching, and a sense of spirituality they had been lacking” (Lopez). So many of these stories can be boiled down to unhappiness with the emotional experience of one’s faith. That so many like Jana Novak, who co-wrote Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God, leave “because they did not feel resonance behind the words they were listening to” (qtd. in Lopez) only highlights the power of human response to emotion, something our Catholic liturgy naturally restrains and subdues, or at least turns inward rather than outward. I have little doubt that if asked, those like Matthew would insist they are evaluating and deciding based on logic and reason, when in fact they are reacting almost entirely from emotion.
Where the Research Leaves Us
I offer these observations to illustrate first of all, that whether we have children or not, we need to recognize this crisis among our Catholic children and young adults, because it is therefore a crisis of our Church and our Faith—for we are all of one body, and we share responsibility for the faith formation of the young; likewise we all suffer from their willful neglect and abandonment of the Catholic faith. Second, the research and observations above point clearly to the fact that not only do we as young people leave for reasons that are primarily emotional, but that we carry those emotional issues into adulthood and allow them to influence our faith commitment. Concomitantly, we as parents and members of the congregation have become too passive in allowing emotion to govern our children’s key decisions, downplaying them as harmless rites of passage.
First, let’s acknowledge the underlying and obvious dilemma in which the Church and its members find themselves because it’s the unspoken basis for most criticism from outsiders: namely, we are saddled with the fact that because we claim to be the “one true Church,” to have the answers, to be the leader in the world, we open ourselves to relentless scrutiny, and a human institution must always fall short when measured against perfect righteousness. There’s nothing young adults hunger for more than black and white answers, clear, consistent demonstrations and explanations from religious leaders, and even from parents: moral ambiguity is instead what they are too often given, and this creates emotional turmoil.
It’s a valuable exercise to spend a few minutes during mass to look around and observe the congregation through the eyes of a teenager. By appearances, one would note a congregation responding like seeming automatons, and for those already looking to find fault, it seems exactly that. It felt that way to me as well for years, and played a key role in my wanderings. It took me years to realize that the very nature of Catholic worship and reflection, of prayer and communion, ends up its worst enemy, a truth too subtle to penetrate the casual judgment of the young. In addressing his disciples, Jesus urged them:
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6, NAB).
Catholics, in embracing this teaching, end up looking like the least devout, the least engaged, the least spiritual, while in fact they are often among the most. Meditating humbly appears as bovine and institutionalized inertia. Add to that the criticism that our faith and worship are not “scripture-based,” that we are not prayerful, and you have the basis of evangelical efforts to lead us away from our church and toward theirs.
Under these attacks, our young people easily lose sight of the fact that our mass is in fact an exaltation of the scriptures and, one could argue, one long prayer and affirmation of our faith . . . and that’s as good a place as any to start a dialogue with our kids.
Defending the Faith at Home
The other day my wife and I found ourselves in the challenging position of explaining to our fifteen-year old daughter why we weren’t allowing her to attend a weekend retreat with her good friend’s evangelical Christian church group. We have acknowledged bluntly to our children on several occasions that our church and its limited activities for young people can’t begin to compete with the “fun” focus of her friend’s church. We talk to her about the differences at the heart of our Faith and how those differences demand a more difficult, less “fun” path, but that they define her and her faith in a vital way. We talk about what the “one true church” means; we do not pretend that all churches and all faiths are equal in God’s eyes; we try to make her aware of the motives inherent in evangelical groups, and what challenges that will raise for her. It’s going to be an ongoing topic, and I’m sure, one that we will continue to pray over, one that will push us to seek out guidance, one that will force us to frequently evaluate our beliefs and how we live them, and more importantly how we model those values to our children.
My wife and I do not see any point in “competing” with other faith communities and trying to mold the activities in our local parish or in trying to bring what works for them into our Church as so many seem inclined to. We can neither surrender our children to the more enticing activities hosted by other churches, nor try to emulate what those churches do in hopes of “winning” some unspoken battle for attention. These are the actions of fear, whereas we need actions that embrace and celebrate the uniqueness of our faith instead. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to create opportunities for engaging our children and young adults, but that it’s more important that we get them to look at their relationship with God and their church as something transcending the allure of fun events with friends.
Returning to the Voices of Wisdom, One Last Time
Not surprisingly, one of the Pew Report’s findings was that “The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence” (Reese; Cabaniss)—a suggestion that sounds so sensible and unassailable that we tend not to question it. But it’s also the same “knee-jerk” response that so readily floats to forefront of conversations surrounding this issue, probably because it sounds so logical. The problem, as Margaret Cabaniss so cogently expresses, is that such “preferential options” have been made available for some time, without effect; in fact, she points out, if we’re merely mimicking what’s offered down the street, that provides even less reason to stay. She focuses instead on what makes us unique: the Eucharist; moreover, she’s absolutely correct that “modern, ‘accessible’ liturgies, social justice outreach; and tight-knit communities” mean nothing “if we haven’t conveyed the fundamental truth at the heart of our Faith: that we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in the Eucharist at every Mass, through an unbroken 2,000-year chain stretching back to Christ Himself. Any attempt to address the attrition problem that doesn’t begin here will fail before it has begun” (Cabaniss).
Cabaniss is not alone in this assessment. Rev. Joseph Wilson, a priest at St. Luke's Church in Queens, New York, accurately identifies the real issue as a “deep misunderstanding of what the Mass is about,” citing the pervasive and misguided expectation that the “liturgy is our self-expression, that it should be comfy and entertaining” (qtd. in Lopez). He focuses on the need to inculcate the understanding that mass should really be “not about what we do so much as about what God does” (qtd. in Lopez). In all the hand wringing over the loss of so many young Catholics, I’ve rarely seen such a pithy and vital truth.
Where Do We Go From Here
Let’s turn to solutions—what we can take away from this discussion and begin applying in our world. I offer this list not only in the hopes that you will find something useful, but also for myself, as a way to clarify the task before me:
- We must first renounce the notion that our young people must be entertained more than challenged; we must instead have faith that they “can respect and understand a God that encourages them to think, question, doubt, research, struggle, and then come willingly to Him” (Lopez).
- We must consciously stop interpreting signs of our children’s imminent departure as some kind of “rite of passage”.
- We must recognize the highly emotional as opposed to rational, logical nature of dissatisfaction among our young Catholics, and be prepared to address that issue openly with them.
- We must be wary of trying to emulate those who compete for our children by providing fun and distraction.
- We must emphasize to our children the fact that God wants us to be serious thinkers; He does not want a cheerleader camp.
- We must talk directly with our children about the church’s complex challenge – its role in the world; the nature of its critics and the allure of other faith communities.
- We must be clear first in our understanding, second in our explanations of our faith to our children.
- We must help our children to see the difference between the Church as a faith and the church as only the sum of its flawed human representatives.
- We must constantly dialogue with our children about the literature, movies, music, and other media they are exposed to, and teach them to evaluate the messages that play such a subtle yet ubiquitous role in their lives.
- We must challenge our children to reflect on the tenets of their confirmation and the sacraments as a whole.
- We must pass on to them a religion that is not adulterated by the modern “cafeteria-style” approach to the Church’s doctrines and teachings.
- We must openly acknowledge with our children that our faith does demand much more than others’ and we must support them tirelessly in shouldering that burden; after all, nothing valuable come without hard work.
- We must demonstrate for them what role spiritual emotion plays in their faith so they do not perceive it as bloodless; we must remind them that what a congregation looks like is often different from what is really going on within its members.
|Mike Filce lives in South Lake Tahoe, attends St. Theresa Church and teaches English at South Tahoe High School. He and his wife Anne are parents to two teenagers, a son and daughter.|