Viewpoint: By the Age of Ten, Young Catholics Are Losing Their Faith

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Two national studies produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University, finds that young Catholics are abandoning their faith starting around the age of 10, and certainly by age 17 (Confirmation catechists, please note!).

Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they no longer identify themselves as Catholics by the age 17, and another 23% said they stopped regarding themselves as Catholic by  the age 10.

Of those who had left the faith, only 13% said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.

The reason most often given is the tension young people perceive between faith and religion. While this factor is highest among students at public school, it is also remarkably high among students at Catholic schools.

There is an emerging profile of youth who say their religious formation is incompatible with what they are learning in public high school or university.

Dr. Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA, speaks of an unprecedented “crisis of faith” among youth. “In the whole concept of faith, this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations.”  There is a severe compartmentalization between education in faith and in science. The fundamental problem is that youth may go to Mass once a week but spend the rest of the week learning “how dumb” their faith is.

On a positive note, Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, states that there are three factors that yield a high retention rate among young Catholics. The first is that the young people have a “weekly activity” like catechesis, Bible study, or youth group. The second is the availability of adults (not their parents) with whom they can discuss their faith. The third is the possibility of providing “deep spiritual experiences.”

I am no sociologist of religion, least of all of that which deals with youth. But my own experience tells me that besides the three factors mentioned here, there are the three additional factors: There is daily prayer in the home, parents and children talking about their faith, and some kind of weekly charitable service made possible for the young people.

Some (like me!) worry about the quality of religious formation of children and youth. Things have improved a lot since the horrid days of religious formation in the 70s and 80s. But, having kept an eye on the kind of texts being used, even the better ones are inadequate. If you want your child to be well informed in the faith, then don’t look at the typical text available. We have a long way to go in this area. For one thing, we need to bring back a thoroughly updated question-and-answer catechism.

There is also the question of parish religious education teachers and Catholic school teachers. Would you be surprised to know that many of them do not go to Sunday Mass regularly and have “difficulties” with the Church? Surely this has to have a disastrous effect on the students for whom they have responsibility. I have seen no data on this, so I am basing what I say on what I have observed and read over the years and what other pastors tell me.

Finally, there are the parents, who rarely if ever talk to their children about the faith and the necessity of growing strong in it. And do parents, even of Catholic school children, go to Mass on Sundays? The vast majority, I fear, do not.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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22 comments

  1. Really, Msgr – you state:

    “There is also the question of parish religious education teachers and Catholic school teachers. Would you be surprised to know that many of them do not go to Sunday Mass regularly and have “difficulties” with the Church? Surely this has to have a disastrous effect on the students for whom they have responsibility. I have seen no data on this, so I am basing what I say on what I have observed and read over the years and what other pastors tell me.”

    Appears to be subjective judgment, innuendo, and gossip – geez, realize that the majority of CCD classes are scheduled on Sunday morning during parish liturgies? That the parents of those students and the students too often also skip Sunday liturgies to attend CCD or read the paper while CCD is going on (well, he at least stated that he fears that? Ask our CCD Director how often the pastor shows up for CCD or makes himself present?

    So, just like Msgr, my personal experience is of too many well intentioned CCD teachers who only exacerbate the science vs. church dilemma because their own religious knowledge is out dated, catechism based only; etc.

    Can think of multiple reasons for why CARA arrived at the conclusions it did but Msgr’s shoot from the hip stuff is way down on the list.

    Find this specific column to be very unhelpful and falls into the category of pointing fingers rather than doing the valuable study that is necessary. You could start by listening to CCD directors and teachers. To start, scheduling CCD on Sunday mornings is a recipe for disaster and usually excused because it is what we have always done or because someone says that they can’t get teachers unless it is Sunday morning. Is there any efforts made to connect parish liturgy and CCD together and encourage/highlight parental/family participation as part of CCD.

    Personal experience with my children in our catholic school – the 7th/8th grade religion teacher was in her 29th and 30th year of teaching religion. To be fair, she tried hard; did good work but her materials, class presentations, etc. were easily outdated; 20+ years old; and reflected very little of current church practice, etc. It was very heavy into piety, etc. and avoided any topics that might raise serious questions.

    1. @william dehaas:
      With all due respect to your post, I cannot resist stating here that as educated pastoral ministers, teachers, etc, we have to use appropriate language. CCD is no longer appropriate language. While there is a rich history of the CCD, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, this organization no longer exists. The educational ministry of the Church is appropriately called catechetical ministry; however, we also use the language of Religious Education, Catechesis, or Faith Formation, which has gained popularity in recent years.

  2. It may still be the where Fr de Haas is: it’s still used officially in some places, it seems. And the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Inc. (Washington DC) still owns the copyright to the New American Bible.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thank you – Donna, agree with you but you do not live where I live. You need to spread your wings. We actually have two separate programs – English and Spanish and they go by different names and different approaches and structures – but, that is a whole other story.

      Faith Formation (by whatever name) is very similar to RCIA which goes by many different names depending upon diocese, bishop, local pastor, etc.

      Fr. – nope, not since 1988 unless you are talking ontologically.

  3. Bringing back a question and answer catechism is not the answer. We have such books. The abbreviated catechism is one of them. No perceptible influence is evident. This is like saying “bring back the nuns.” You’d have to bring back an entire era, a whole culture, to get the desired result. Whatever we need, it has to be something fit for the next era, not yesteryear.

    As for the failings of textbooks, let’s remember that the bishops control the content, and it is all from the catechism. There are strict guidelines, and they are applied. If the situation is dire, perhaps it shows that the bishops and the catechism enforcers are barking up the wrong tree.

  4. I would raise a question as to whether “losing their faith” is an appropriate term applied to 10 yr olds; they are still on the way in the journey of faith formation. However, disaffiliation, or a distancing from the institutional Church is occuring, because of a variety of internal and external factors. And so we come to a key question, How do we bring younger Catholics to an existential understanding that the assembly of the faithful that gathers for Eucharist on a Sunday morning is their Church, they also are welcomed and belong there. Much of what I have seen, observed in Churches in both the UK and Japan, over the years is best described as tokenism.

  5. This is not one of Msgr Mannion’s better essays. Catechetical materials were excellent in the 70s. There’s been no dip in quality since. Catechist training is probably as good or better than it ever has been.

    The missing element is a supporting Catholic culture. When most everybody does the same Catholic things, devotionally and socially, like they did in the 50s, it covers a lot of gaps, including details of faith.

    If parents don’t bring their children to church and provide a home environment of discipleship, then I would say age ten is optimistic. I’d say baptism and First Eucharist are cultural remnants with little connection to an active Christian faith.

    Tokenism? Yes.

  6. I have found the Q&A format far superior for catechesis but it isn’t enough. Not even close. A love for the Mass and the Eucharist is absolutely critical but difficult to engender when their parents don’t take them to Mass.

  7. I’m in the ‘don’t get me started’ mode after being a DRE or Catholic school teacher for almost 40 years. First, the CARA results square with my own experience pretty well. I met a new group of 7th graders this week and I’m pretty sure you these stats describe their status as believers. Time will tell. Second, even kids who have been in RE for years don’t know the Our Father or Hail Mary. I’m new at my current job and we’re going to work on that. But, what it tells me is that possibly saying those prayers 20 times a year – maybe – isn’t enough to build either a habit or vocabulary of prayer. Twenty years ago, the ACRE results at another parish where I worked showed that less than 5% prayed with their families at home. Yet we flail about with ideas to get families engaged that Just. Don’t. Work.

    As for the catechists or teachers, I see a huge disparity. The former group cares about faith and wants to share it, but actually feel quite marginalized in the parish and often have very little to work with in terms of resources and support. The later group can include real believers – where I work now is a good example- but not always. I worked with two recent principals who refused to ask if new teacher candidates were Catholic and then would expect them to teach religion. Forget trying to find a Catholic who goes to mass. Yet, the diocese is breaking its financial back to keep schools open while lowering the standards for catechetical leaders so that they need not have even an associate’s degree.

    These are just ‘tip of the iceberg’ observations from a long career, but if we wanted to design a model to intentionally have the church decline, it would be hard to do much better.

  8. My dad was an altar server back in the 1930s and early 40s. To this day, he can rattle off the Latin responses. Ad Déum qui laetíficat juventútem méam comes out something like ademkeylatifijuvimem. I asked him one time what that meant, and he had no idea. The good old days weren’t all that good.

    On the other hand, he does have a strong sense that what happens in church is directly connected to what happens in this life and the next. Rain won’t fall on the crops? Pray a novena.

  9. Can you leave “the faith” that you have never appropriated? Can the faith of children growing up in a home with parents and siblings who in their actions more resemble baptized pagans than followers of Christ ever take root? Our catechetical programs presume that children are already believers when for the most part all they “believe” are doctrinal propositions they are in no position to contradict. As they get older and more independent (in our culture around the age of 8 or 9) they begin to notice the gap between the behaviors of parents and other adult believers and their actions. They ask “what’s faith for anyway”? Good question, huh? Too bad there are not a lot of people around ready, willing, and able to respond to such quandaries. When they are baptized, their parents are asked if they will raise their child “in the faith”? They always respond affirmatively after which a godparent chimes in that they will help the parents in that effort. If neither parents or godparents have encountered Christ in a way that draws them into something resembling true discipleship, what will raising in the faith look like: regular or sporadic attendance at Mass, enrollment in catechetical programs, sacramental prep for penance, eucharist, and confirmation?
    Let me hasten to add that I grew up with nominally Catholic parents and godparents. They were good cultural Catholics but not disciples by any stretch of the term. They passed on the Catholic stuff they had received doing the best they could……and I turned out alright….couldn’t be that bad a system, huh? I turned out alright only after having that personal encounter with Christ as a young man who had “lost his faith” and embraced the ways of the world (i.e. sin). I cried out for help and the Lord answered me. But that was only the beginning of a long and winding journey which involved both faithfulness and unfaithfulness, sin and grace. We need strategies for the conversion of parents and other adults. Alpha is one of them.

  10. I suggest another “weekly activity” that strongly enhances faith formation is participation in the parish choir program.

    1. @Thomas Keesecker:
      Indeed, children will keenly notice if weekly worship is treated by parents more as a to-do item to be fitted in the weekend family workflow than as the source-and-summit of the week.

      I think of my father: growing up in a German-American family that worshipped and schooled in a German national parish in Bridgeport Connecticut. (His *much* older siblings learned their prayers in German, Latin and English – the German part ended 7 years before he was born…courtesy of America’s entry into World War I). My father was an altar boy. Great emphasis was placed on receiving Holy Communion, so the eucharistic fast (then from midnight) was observed. The Sunday morning breakfast after Mass was a very special meal (my grandfather would preside over carving the ring of weisswurst at table), as was Sunday dinner (which would either be at home or at a grandparents’ home). Bible reading was a normal thing in that German-American Catholic household. (My father still does it as he is able.) The domestic rituals supported a general re-setting of pitch for each week.

      Imagine, for example, Sunday rest from devices.

  11. And, if one were to avoid doctrinal discussions and instead focus mostly on Christianity as an ethical path, that could bide time in a context where nearly all of a child’s peers were Christian, but not in a much more heterogenous context where the day-to-day ethical decisions most children behold others making bear no highly distinctive Christian vs Non-Christian branding, so children can get the impression (mistaken but understandable) that there is no distinctive Christian ethics. (A lot of decisions that would be distinctively Christian are not necessarily ones children would witness – they tend to be the kind of things that adults tend to shield children from; how many parents involve their children in considerations of when to withdraw life support from an elder who is dying? In the decision about whether to carry a new pregnancy to term? About what to pay employees? Et cet.) Besides, discipleship is not merely about ethics. It’s about theosis, which is a larger and deeper thing.

    How many adults are prepared to answer the question of a child: why doesn’t God talk to me when I pray?

  12. This is normal, isn’t it?

    The discussion shouldn’t be about how to prevent these questions, but how we can maintain a connection with those who have questions and doubts. Accompany them, don’t see them as abandoning us

    I don’t know exactly what that means, but we should expect adolescents to grow. That shouldn’t be considered abandonment.

  13. I’m no statistician, but if currently 25% of the US population is “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated, which includes the “Dones” who are formerly affiliated), and under thirty years of age it’s 40%, then it would seem to project forward that more than half the US will be “Nones” by the time these ten-year olds are adults in a decade or so.
    Given that, it seems that a whole new methodology for faith formation needs to emerge, since we can’t rely on the religiosity (or, specifically, Christianity) of the surrounding culture. It would seem that a strong and nearly-exclusive partnership between the parish church and the domestic church (sanctuary and home) needs to forged.

  14. By the age of 10, their parents my have put the kids’ faith formation on hold…. until Confirmation, that is, when they ‘graduate’. Then maybe we’ll next see alot of them at their wedding…. if they choose to marry in the church.
    The institutional church just doesn’t grab young (or old) people’s attention. They want more than an institution. They want something that more resembles what they read about in the NT.

    1. @John Swencki:
      “They want more than an institution. They want something that more resembles what they read about in the NT.”

      But do they? Really? I think the evidence for that is thinner on the ground than we might prefer to think, perhaps more true at the margins than within the first standard deviation of the bell curve, as it were. What appears to grab attention are things that offer relatively quick gratification, consistent with our civic religion.

  15. So we need to bring back ‘ a question and answer’ catechism…
    “You got a question? I got an answer” Questions are a way to faith, providing that we accept that not all questions have answers. Exploration of faith alongside those who are attempting to live their faith is a better option. So many parents of our young people experienced the joy and gifts that followed the Council, only to have their hopes dashed in subsequent years. Hearing the cries of those seeking faith is one thing, listening to their anxieties in a whole different ball game. Time and again Francis asks for Bishops to listen to their people , time and again it comes to nothing. When will we ever learn?

  16. I’m not sure if I can give the best opinion of religious education in the 1990s when i was a kid. We moved around frequently and I never had the benefit of experiencing a single parish’s overall CCD program. My recollection is that we had a workbook with a lot of fill-in-the blank and word search activities and the CCD teachers seemed largely disinterested in discussing the faith or in answering questions. I vividly remember asking the teacher before class about people kneeling next to their beds to pray because it was a practice I’d seen in an old movie, but which my own family didn’t do. After looking at me like I was an idiot, the teacher ignored me completely and started to pass out some worksheets. As a kid I really enjoyed religion and liked going to Mass, but found CCD to be really boring and put very little effort into it. Also, faith and its relationship to science was never addressed and I know Catholics who lost their faith completely once they learned about evolution.

    I should say it wasn’t all bad. In 7th grade, there was a teacher who would have us summarize Bible passages and had us do things like celebrate a mock-passover dinner (on the gymnasium stage, so as to be in an “upper room”), and I found those experiences to be much more enriching – but I think that was an initiative of that specific teacher and not part of any curriculum.

    Unlike some of the CCD teachers, my mom loved answering any dumb question I seemed to have. I found out later that a lot of her answers were from the old Baltimore Catechism, so I can’t say an updated question and answer catechism would be a bad thing. Combined with teachers who openly discuss the faith and encourage higher-level thinking it would likely be a good thing.

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