By Michael O'Loughlin
Editor's Note: This article was first published January 30, 2011 on the website of America magazine. To view it in its original form and to read responses to it from readers, click here.
What role does the church play, if any, to twenty-something Catholics in the United States?
This was the question that a group of Catholic thinkers, writers, pastors, lay ministers, and other church leaders attempted to answer this weekend at a conference held at Fordham University called, Lost? Twenty-Somethings and the Catholic Church.
The conference began with a panel of academics offering statistics on young adults and the church, trends that can easily be seen in many parishes across the country. Young adult Catholics aren’t going to Mass in sizable numbers, and when asked, fewer than ever before identify as Catholic. Panelists then sought to explain why so many young adults are leaving the church and offer ideas as to what might be done to stop the trend.
The Lost? website will post transcripts and video soon, but in the meantime, some items worth noting:
* The church should avoid the temptation to become a political power player. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that young adults are turned off from the church when it appears to be shilling for a particular political party. Minor gains in policy may come at a huge cost: losing a generation of Catholics from both sides of the political spectrum.
* Race and ethnicity remain sensitive and critical challenges for the Catholic Church, especially with the rapidly growing Latino population. Young Latinos are taught a sense of ownership and belonging in their parishes that is not fostered and developed in traditionally Euro-centric parishes. As a result, these young adults sometimes leave the church altogether when their talents are underutilized in mixed parishes.
* The split between church leaders and young adults on issues of gender and sexuality is growing. Young people are more likely to support same-sex marriage and female ordination than their older counterparts and the hierarchy, and many cite these issues as reasons they don’t feel at home in the church. Young adults won’t support any institution where they feel that any group of people is not fully welcome and included.
There were many reasons to lose hope, but there were also some bright spots. For all the stats about why young adults loathe and leave the church, some twenty-somethings still participated in the audience. The examples of why some leave the church were answered with stories of why some stay. And while some of the conversation was disheartening and morose, some was full of energy and enthusiasm for the future (America's Jim Martin moderated an excellent panel that offered many concrete ideas to keep young adult Catholics in the church).
The challenges to make the faith and the church relevant and important to the next generation of Catholics are great, but perhaps not quite insurmountable. The conference itself is testimony that some church leaders are excited and eager to begin a conversation, and that in itself is hopeful. But even if a place is set, will disaffected and ambivalent twenty-somethings take their places at the table? Are church leaders speaking the right language, and if not, are they willing to learn a new vocabulary? Is the church marketing its unique value proposition to young adults in a clear and compelling manner? That is, what does the church offer young adults that they cannot get elsewhere?
There were few answers to these questions, and even fewer young voices to offer thoughtful analysis and opinion, but they were being asked, which is a welcomed start. The church is running out of time to retain this maturing generation, and by extension, future generations. For the church to lose the talent, energy, inspiration, and imagination of young adults would be scandalous, but all’s not lost. Yet.