WASHINGTON (SE): “Young Catholics are leaving the faith at an early age—sometimes before the age of 10—and their reasons are deeper than being bored at Mass,” Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA), says in a new report published in conjunction with two national studies done in the United States of America by the centre.
“Those that are leaving for no religion—and a pretty big component of them say they are atheist or agnostic—it turns out that when you probe a bit more deeply and you allow them to talk in their own words, that they are bringing up things that are related to science and a need for evidence and a need for proof,” Gray explained in elaborating on his research.
“It is almost a crisis in faith,” he told the Catholic News Agency on December 21 last year. “In the whole concept of faith, this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations.”
Gray recently published the results of two national studies done by CARA in a publication called Our Sunday Visitor. One of the surveys was conducted among people between the ages of 15 and 25, who were raised Catholic but no longer identify as Catholic, and the second among self-identified Catholics aged 18 and over.
Gray said that in exploring why young Catholics are choosing to leave the faith, he discovered an emerging profile of young people who say they find the faith incompatible with what they are learning in high school or at the university level.
He called it a perceived battle between the Catholic Church and science, in which the Church is losing out badly.
He stressed that Catholics are also leaving at a younger age. “The interviews with youth and young adults who have left the Catholic faith revealed that the typical age for this decision to leave was made at 13,” Gray writes.
“Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 per cent, said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17.
“Another 23 per cent say they left the faith before the age of 10,” he continued.
He added that of those who have left the faith only 13 per cent said they are ever likely to return to the Catholic Church and barring any big changes in their life they are probably not coming back.
The most common reason given for leaving, mentioned by one in five respondents, was stopping to believe in God or religion.
Gray said that this is evidence of a “desire among some of them for proof, for evidence of what they’re learning about their religion and about God.”
He called it a trend in popular culture to see atheism as smart and the faith as a fairy tale.
“And I think the Church needs to come to terms with this as an issue of popular culture,” he continued. “I think the Church perhaps needs to better address its history and its relationship to science.”
He said one reason for this might be the compartmentalisation of faith and education, where young people may go to Mass once a week, but spend the rest of their week learning how the faith is dumb.
He said that this is in stark contrast with students being taught about evolution or the Big Bang theory at the same school where they learn religion, and, he stressed, because they are being taught by people with religious convictions, they are being shown that there is no conflict between the two.
Gray called this a case of understanding the Church within the context of its history and its relationship with science.
He said previous generations that learned about both faith and science as part of a curriculum, experienced a type of education that helped them in dealing with these bigger questions and consequently they did not see any conflict between religion and science.
Father Matthew Schneider, an experienced worker in youth ministry, emphasised that faith and science must be presented to young people in harmony with each other.
He told the Catholic News Agency that the challenge is to teach how faith and science relate through philosophy and theology.
He added that while science deals only with what is observable and measurable, “the world needs something non-physical as its origin and that’s how to understand God along with science.”
Father Schneider added that it was the Christian faith that was the birthplace of science. “There’s not a contradiction between faith and science, but it is understanding each one in their own realms,” he explained.
In response to the curly question of how parents can raise their children with a mature and balanced faith, Father Schneider cited research done by Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who concluded that a combination of three factors produces an 80 per cent retention rate among young Catholics.
He said that Smith maintains that if they have a weekly activity, like catechesis, bible study or belong to a youth group; if they have adults at the parish who are not their parents who they can talk to about the faith; and if they have deep spiritual experiences, they have a much higher likelihood of remaining Catholic.
However, Gray noted that many parents are not aware of their children’s beliefs and many don’t even know that their children may no longer profess to be Catholic.
But he emphasised that the Church is wide open to science, pointing to the affiliation of non-Catholic scientists with the Pontifical Academy of Science, including physicist, Stephen Hawking.
“There is no real conflict between faith and science,” Gray said.
“The Church has been steadily balancing matters of faith and reason since St. Augustine’s work in the fifth century,” he writes.
“Yet, the Church has a chance to keep more of the young Catholics being baptised now if it can do more to correct the historical myths about the Church in regards to science,” he added, “and continue to highlight its support for the sciences, which were, for the most part, an initial product of the work done in Catholic universities hundreds of years ago.”
A long time struggle of Catholic education has been to underpin the religious attitudes of young people with a convincing intellectual basis, a task which educators admit is extremely difficult.