Friday, February 4, 2011

Is All Lost?

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.


  1. 2-7-11
    The profound institutional change (see Thomas Sheen's "Revolution in the Church" in The New York Review of Books online but much more than that) and the resistance to the change is in my opinion the root of the problem of Catholicism’s theological snare today, almost fifty years, a half a century (!) after the beginning of Vatican II. How do we extricate ourselves from the snare? We search the literature for appropriate reading that brings us to the implications of “the dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology” and what follows from this monumental shift i.e. “a radical rethinking of their faith.”
    The literature search is multidisciplinary but relevant to this radical rethinking of the faith. A committed laity has to engage in faith and morality issues in the academic mainstream. Once lay people in general are further educated and have sufficient credibility to invite the twenty-something Catholics to join them, everyone will have found themselves! All is not lost. An evolving faith is now a work in progress.

  2. So if we embrace today's thinking on all issues then all will be well and the Church will grow and prosper? Well rush off and tell the Episcopalians because that is NOT their experience. If the Church suddenly allowed/embraced contraception, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage etc it would lose credibility with everyone inside and outside. Do grow up. The Holy Spirit is working here and you will never get your 'progressive' Pope.

  3. As a 20 something Catholic, thank you. Thank you for remembering us. Why aren't we in church? Because there is nothing for us there. We are not invited in. We are told we should show up for pre-Cana and then kicked to the curb.
    We are lost between being children and raising children. For the young single or young newlywed the church community offers very little. I'm not talking about Christ or the Eucharist, but the parish. Offer a bible study. Say hi to the new couple at church.
    We don't feel welcome at church. We know we are judged, for being young, for wearing jeans, for not even remembering the Latin mass. For having different ideas, for believing in equality. We are tired of hearing "do grow up."
    We are fairly certain this isn't the church our parents told us about or that the Jesus we read about promised. The one that was revolutionary. The one that practiced radical love. The one that welcomed all at the table.
    Instead we hear about Latin translations and why we are sinners for not voting a certain way. When the Knights of Columbus passed out a flyer explaining how Catholics should vote after mass, my heart sank. We all want to be accepted - Democrat or Republican. Our church supercedes American politics.
    We are tired of hearing about what a failure our generation is, as I'm sure every generation prior did when they were in their 20s.
    If you want 20-somethings to come to church, invite them. Include them. Don't wag your finger at them and expect them to feel loved.