Meeting Reviews Study of Young Catholics Who Have Left Church

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Seeking to identify “points of hopefulness,” archdiocesan leaders met at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan for a gathering called “Conversation About Young Catholics Leaving the Church.”

At the Feb. 26 evening meeting, John M. Vitek, president and chief executive officer of Saint Mary’s Press, gave a presentation on the findings of a study on youth and young adult Catholics who have left the Church. The presentation identified underlying dynamics that lead to disaffiliation, and it described the factors that reinforce the dynamics.

Vitek also examined broader sociological shifts that can enhance or diminish religious affiliation and engagement in our secular society. The presentation, based on a report of the same title, was called, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.”

(The 2018 report stems from a two-year national study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and Saint Mary’s Press Catholic Research Group).

“This is not just unique to the United States—religious disaffiliation has long been happening in Europe, in Australia; it has become a world issue,” Vitek said early in his presentation, alluding to global secularization and individualism.

He noted that religious disaffiliation has affected all major religions in recent decades except Buddhism, which has seen its membership increase. He stressed that many young people who leave the Catholic Church continue to believe in God but don’t trust organized religion.

Vitek presented statistics that show young Catholics losing trust in institutions in general, including government, the media, banks, big business, public schools and the medical system.

As for reasons given for leaving the Catholic Church, the study showed the main one was that young people disagree with or don’t accept Church teachings (38.9 percent). Other reasons given were: don’t believe in religion, see “many paths”; changed denomination or religion; family dynamics (i.e., divorce, two-religion families); and don’t believe in God. The decision to leave is usually a slow process, made over a period of years.

Nevertheless, Vitek, noted, many young Catholics continue to appreciate and express gratitude for what they learned from the Church, regarding social justice in general, and the importance of seeking to be good and to do good.

“These young people are very articulate—they care very deeply. But they have become disillusioned,” said Vitek, noting that many of the young Catholics interviewed for the study indicated they had lost a sense of belonging in their parish communities. His presentation included brief videos of two young women who discussed their concerns and hopes.

One solution, Vitek noted, is to increase efforts to create a higher sense of belonging for young adult Catholics—to get to know them by name, find out more about them through social gatherings, to listen to their concerns in nonjudgmental fashion, and to address those concerns honestly and compassionately.

The “Going, Going, Gone” report, as described by Saint Mary’s Press, is a sample of the 5.4 million individuals in the United States who are former Catholics between the ages of 15 to 25. In all, 204 respondents—184 young adults and 20 teens—were interviewed after a screening process.

Dr. Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, said he believed the presentation “will encourage us to collectively consider the implications for the Church and Catholic schools, as well as identify points of hopefulness in the midst of the significant shifts in America’s religious landscape.”

McNiff noted that each year his office sponsors a “Best Practice” conversation with archdiocesan high school board members and administrators. Because of this year’s topic, McNiiff extended the opportunity to pastors, principals and board chairs of archdiocesan elementary schools.

Sister Jean Marie Humphries, O.S.U., principal of Academy of Mount St. Ursula in the Bronx, was among the 35 people who attended Vitek’s presentation. “What ways can we connect and help them have trust?” Sister Jean Marie said to CNY. She said that she was encouraged to hear from Vitek that some young adult Catholics gather in social settings (the ‘dinner party’ concept) “looking for contemplation, community and justice. Great!”

John Fodera, president of St. Peter’s Boys High School on Staten Island, said he found Vitek’s presentation “very interesting and informative.”

“St. Peter’s Boys High School is sponsored by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and they include in their LaSallian conferences to the faculty and administrators a section on the very findings of ‘Going, Going, Gone,’” he said.

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