Why young people are leaving the Church

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Bishop Robert Barron

Last week, I gave a presentation at the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops Spring Meeting in Baltimore. My topic was what I identified as the second greatest crisis facing the Church today—namely, the massive attrition of our own people, especially the young. I trust that the first—around which most of our discussions that week revolved—is obvious to everyone. Judging from the extremely positive reaction of my brother bishops and the lively conversation that followed my presentation, the talk was well received. I was also delighted it apparently prompted a spirited conversation on social media.

After laying out the rather dismal statistics regarding the “nones” or the religiously unaffiliated—50 percent of millennial Catholics now claim no religious identity, for every one person who joins our Church, six are leaving, etc.—I commenced to offer some reasons why so many are exiting. I told my brother bishops that these were not the fruit of idle speculation but rather of the many statistical and sociological studies that have been conducted regarding the phenomenon. The number one reason—iterated in survey after survey—is that young people are quitting the Church because they don’t believe in the teachings of classical Christianity. Moreover, the studies consistently maintain this lack of belief is often because religion is seen as conflicting with science. Other factors, I continued, include the general secularism and moral relativism of the culture, the difficulty many young people have with the Church’s sexual teachings, and the supposed correlation between religion and violence.

Having presented these findings, I then shared what I take to be signs of hope. The first is that, among the unaffiliated, there are relatively few fierce atheists or determined opponents of religion. Most are indifferent to faith and have drifted rather than stormed away from the Church. A second indicator of hope is the massive presence of young people on social media platforms that trade in religious topics. I mentioned my own participation in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), which yielded almost 12,000 comments and questions, making it the third most-discussed exchange of its kind last year. Even though many, if not most, of those who joined in that conversation proposed challenging questions, or made skeptical observations, the undoubted interest in matters religious is something to build on. Finally, I referenced what I called “the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.” I was drawing my brothers’ attention to the rather extraordinary fact that a mild-mannered, soft-spoken psychology professor, speaking of serious matters in a sober way, could attract tens of thousands to arenas and millions to his social media sites. I told my fellow bishops that most recently Peterson has been lecturing on the Bible, causing armies of people, especially young men, to take a fresh look at the Scriptures. I explicitly said my reference to Peterson in no way signaled a one-sided or uncritical endorsement of his teaching. Nevertheless, his emergence and his success are, I argued, indicators that we could get a serious message across to a wide audience.

The reaction to my talk outside the walls of the bishops’ conference ballroom was, as I say, interesting. Most reacted very positively to my observations and suggestions, but some, on both the extreme left and the extreme right, took exception to what I said. On the starboard side of the spectrum, there were comments to the effect that I had underplayed the importance of the clerical sex abuse scandals. Well, no one has been more vehement in his denunciation of these outrages than I (see my recent Letter to a Suffering Church for the details), but judging from the available data, it’s simply not the case that the scandals are a major driver of disaffiliation. They indeed appear as a factor, but not a significant one, certainly in comparison with the causes I named above. I get the passion around this issue, but it shouldn’t prompt us to draw conclusions not supported by objective evidence.

But I was especially surprised, and more than a little amused, by the overheated response from some on the far-left end of the spectrum. It appears the mere mention of the name “Jordan Peterson” is enough to send some into irrational conniptions. Though I had unambiguously stated my reference to the Canadian was in no way meant as an endorsement of the entirety of his thought, some commentators and combox denizens characterized me as a Peterson disciple, an apologist for his program, a lackey. One particularly hysterical observer had me “basing my apologetics” on Jordan Peterson! Oy vey. As I have made clear in my own articles and videos, Peterson reads the Bible through a Jungian, psychodynamic lens, and hence, by definition, does not read it adequately. It is not even evident that the Canadian believes in God in the accepted sense of the term. “Basing my apologetics” on him?! Give me a break.

What is particularly sad to me is the commentariat, especially in regard to religion, has become so polarized and ideologically driven that the most elementary distinctions aren’t made and the most broad-brush analyses are commonplace. What makes it sadder still is that these distortions and projections stand in the way of addressing the vitally important issue under consideration. As left and right defend their respective ideological bailiwicks, the Church continues to hemorrhage young people. If we want to get serious about a problem that ought to concern everyone in the Church, it would be wise to attend to objectivities.

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

5 thoughts on “Why young people are leaving the Church”

  1. I’m overjoyed to see so many young people leaving the Catholic Church. It’s a hideously evil organization ($10.6 million to lobby against anti-pedophilia laws?) and the world will be made better by its passing.

  2. I’m glad I no longer worship within the walls of a church. That could change if the leaders were to clean house, and set in order what needed go be fixed. If priests, bishops, and Pope Francis would actually own the seriousness of the stain upon the church. While I believe the blood of Jesus cleans up all sin, you can’t remove the worse of the worse unless there’s a total overhaul. I think the church needs to crumble and be rebuilt. Young people aren’t going to sit in the pews of a church that stays in the past or refuses to admit or accept the monstrous acts committed by men of the frock.

  3. I think your data is flawed. Of course the sexual scandal is huge, but there are so many other issues you didn’t touch on that have been keeping people away. Patriarchy, the fact that women can’t be priests and higher is huge. Then allowing all priests to be married. You have just solved discrimination, the sexual scandal because now there are so many people wanting to be priests there can be very high standards, and the priest shortage is solved. People will come running back in droves. It’s so simple but continues to be ignored because the powers that be would rather have a dysfunctional church then allow then give up the power of the Patriarchy.

  4. The benefits of a church community seem less tangible for young Catholics. The parish simply does not function as the same center of social life that it did for prior generations. Fellowship opportunities are limited for those who are older than youth group age and not quite old enough for the Tuesday morning knitting groups.
    But the growing dissatisfaction goes deeper than preferring brunch with friends over stilted coffee and donuts. Millennials, many with a passion for social justice rooted in their Catholic values and upbringing, are dissatisfied with an institution that preaches community and compassion and often practices the opposite. Taught to reach out to the marginalized, young Catholics are typically protective of their L.G.B.T. friends—or feel unwelcome themselves. They do not want to be a part of an organization that has too often been a deep source of pain for the people they love.
    There are other disconnects between the values of millennial Catholics and the church’s practices. They might find the lack of women in positions of leadership unacceptable or consider the church’s emphasis on sexual ethics—birth control, abortion, gay marriage—to be outsized when immigration, health care and climate change feel like far more pressing issues.
    We were taught in Sunday School to love why another. The answer was always Love. But now all we hear is hate speech. Christianity is about protecting the poor, spend time with the prisoner, healing the sick, caring for the stranger. Christianity to me is about humility, it’s about love.
    It’s preached over and over but not practiced. Millennials are done with fakeness and want to live a genuine enriching life. Not a facade.
    Confirmation classes instructed us that touching, kissing, etc was sinful, but then 10 years later Marriage Prep told us to express our love with our spouse. It’s very misconstrued and confusing for an adolescent.

    1. when I left there were small groups or bible studies. These can be useful, but for some people, but an 16-18 year old won’t fit in. They don’t want a serious ? session with homework. I was a lector so I had a focus, but I had to move on from that house of worship because it was stifling and limited. 16-30s, even much older adults want an active faith experience. The sit, listen, and think about it approach doesn’t cut it. They don’t seem to realize age defined and single focus groups aren’t the greatest.

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