COLLEGE PARK, Md. – As the Catholic Church prepares to elect a new pope to guide it into the future, church leaders are struggling to keep young people from leaving the faith.
Four out of five Catholics who have left the church — and have not joined another — did so before the age of 24, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Some young Catholics have drifted away as they moved from home and failed to connect to a new parish, while others have left because their personal political views made them feel isolated. Some have blamed the church’s conservative stance on gay marriage and abortion for their departure.
The Catholic hierarchy is not doing enough to address the problem, said Robert J. McCarty, director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
“I think the church knows [young Catholics are leaving]; I don’t think the church knows what to do about it,” he said.
But Jonathan Lewis, the evangelization and young adult coordinator at the Archdiocese of Washington, said that his organization is actively working with local parishes to stem the tide.
Getting young adults to explore long-term spirituality is difficult when they “are living more in the moment,” he said. “What we’re dealing with is not particularly a Catholic problem, but a generational problem.”
Indeed, a growing number of young people are leaving not just the Catholic church, but organized religion as a whole. In the 1970s, 12 percent of 18-29 year olds were unaffiliated with a church, according to the General Social Surveys. Last year, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey found 32 percent of 18-29 year olds were unaffiliated, far higher than any other age group.
Patrick Vaughn, a University of Maryland student from Olney, was driven away from Catholicism in part because of the church’s opposition to gay marriage and contraception.
In second grade, he thought about becoming a priest and used to enjoy attending Mass with his parents every Sunday. In high school, he “would just get angry at church sometimes.” Now, at age 21, he’s an atheist.
“The teachings of the church [without the] supernatural are fantastic; they teach you how to be a good person. But [the church’s interpretations of] the Old Testament don’t apply anymore,” he said.
Former Catholics cite frustration with the church’s stance on social issues as a common reason for leaving. According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2009 survey, half of former Catholics said dissatisfaction with the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality and birth control were among their reasons for leaving.
The church, under conservative Pope Benedict XVI, has steadfastly held to its views on those issues. Benedict officially retired on Feb. 28, ending his eight-year papacy. Cardinals are expected to begin meeting March 11 to discuss plans to elect his successor, according to reports.
In an effort to attract more young people, some Catholic organizations said they are spending less time talking about controversial social issues and more on the benefits of the faith.
FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, sends missionaries to college campuses across the country to recruit new members for the church. Jeremy Rivera, a spokesman for the organization, said many students are figuring out who they are in college, making it a critical time to provide information about the church.
The missionaries talk less about social issues, and more about the positive benefits of a relationship with Christ.
“Their days are filled with telling everybody what the church is for and not just what the church is against,” he said.
But Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, said young adults tend to hear less about the benefits of Catholicism and more about the church’s stance on social issues.
“What we hear about mostly… is what the church thinks about what we call the pelvic zone issues: how the church feels about gay people, which is negatively, [and] how the church feels about women in the priesthood,” said Manson, who is gay. “What it suggests is that the church is not interested in hearing our voice, in hearing our story, in hearing about our experience.”
The church’s conservative social positions have left some young Catholics feeling isolated from others in their faith. Some Maryland parishes and Catholic groups have created opportunities for like-minded 20-somethings to connect with each other and discuss more than church doctrine.
St. Casimir Church in Baltimore hosts young adult pickup basketball games. St. Louis Parish in Clarksville hosts playgroups for parents with infants and toddlers. Sacred Heart Church in Glyndon hosts a young adult karaoke night with wine and cheese.
But it’s not just 20-somethings that churches are targeting to retain more believers. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, about 38 percent of former Catholics left the faith before they turned 18. Some Maryland churches are putting more effort into creating a strong community for teenagers.
St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester hosts monthly coffeehouse chats and community service events for teenagers to keep them connected to the church.
“I think it gives them something to be positive about and share the faith,” said Linda Sterner, the youth ministry coordinator at the parish.
Among other activities, St. Bernadette Parish in Severn hosts video game nights for teenagers.
“We put an emphasis on being a welcoming community,” said Rena Black, St. Bernadette’s youth ministry coordinator. “The relationship and the love extended between people comes first.”
Youth groups, like the ones at St. Bartholomew and St. Bernadette, help keep teenagers connected to the faith. But when high schools students leave home for college, ties to Catholicism can weaken. These transitional periods in a young person’s life can set the stage for a break with the church.
McCarty said the church needs to reach out more to young adults during these critical points to strengthen their connection to Catholicism. It is making the mistake of waiting for young adults to come to them, he said.
When Sebastian Serrano, 21, came to study at the University of Maryland from Wilmington, Mass., he moved a long way from his home parish. A lifelong Catholic, Serrano has serious disagreements with the church’s ban on female priests.
But that disagreement has not driven him away from the church. At the University of Maryland, he’s found a strong community of fellow Catholics with whom he feels free to share his views on the church’s positions. Hanging out with other Catholic students has helped him maintain a strong connection to the church.
“There’s an advantage to talking to people who have respect for the topic…so you feel comfortable talking about it,” he said.