The study was released today by St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (CARA).
Of those who left the Catholic Church, the median age for doing so was 13 years old, the study found. Seventy-four percent of the 214 former Catholics interviewed said that they decided to leave the Church between the ages of 10 and 20.
“We heard young people describe the beginnings of their questioning and doubts as early as fifth grade, some even younger,” said John Vitek, one of the principal authors of the study.
Vitek, who is the president and CEO of St. Mary’s Press, told CNA that this finding may surprise many adults “because many of the young people also told us that they never talked about their doubts and questions with their parents or their Church leaders.”
Many of the young former Catholics interviewed now fall into the category of “Nones” – or people who have no religious affiliation. Thirty-five percent of the participants told the researchers that they no longer have a religious affiliation, whereas only 14 percent would label themselves as atheist or agnostic.
These results align with previous Pew Research Center findings that the “Nones” are a growing category in the U.S. The CARA researchers cite a 2015 Pew study that the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. increased by 19 million between 2007 and 2014.
In addition, 21 percent of young Catholics who left the Church responded that they are now “born again” or evangelical Christian.
Although the “Nones” represented the largest category of former Catholics, Vitek said that “the vast majority of young people who disaffiliated from the Catholic Church still believe in God and most still desire some type of religious community with which to affiliate.”
Reasons for leaving
The study, Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, is based on a national survey and interviews with 214 former Catholics between the ages of 15 and 25.
“This study was all about young people telling their stories of why they left the Church in their own words, uncensored and unfiltered,” explained Vitek in a press release on the study.
CARA researchers identified patterns among the young people’s personal stories and described three archetypes for their Catholic disaffiliation: the injured, the drifter, and the dissenter.
The “injured” are young people who experienced a hardship or tragedy in which God seemed to be absent. Despite their prayers, their parents divorced or ill family members died, for example.
One young man told the researchers that he remembers family and loved ones praying for his grandfather with lung cancer, “everyone is praying for him, probably over 150 people. Personally praying for him and still there was nothing done to help him and that was my first skepticism.”
The “drifter” is one who typically had trouble connecting their identity as a baptized Catholic to their concrete life experiences in the real world. They struggled to articulate why being Catholic matters, so they just drifted away from the Church.
The researchers noted the influence that parents can have on this drifting away from the Church and that a family unit can drift together when parents feel inadequate to explain why the faith matters.
Reachers encountered a more active rejection of the faith in those in the “dissenter” category. Some of these young people cited disagreement with Church teaching on birth control, same-sex marriage, and sexuality as the precipitating force for their departure.
Notably, only two percent of respondents cited the clergy sex abuse scandal as a reason they left the Church.
Vitek explained to CNA that there can be intersections between these three common categories, saying, “a young person may first have a disruptive experience that causes them to feel hurt or broken in some way, that brokenness might lead the young person to begin to question and doubt their faith, and their unresolved doubt may lead them to drift away.”
A final decision?
Before they left their faith, the young former Catholics were involved in the Church to varying extents. Twenty-eight percent told CARA that they rarely or never attended Mass at the time when they considered themselves Catholic. Only 17 percent surveyed said that they attended Mass weekly when they were Catholic. Three-fourths of the respondents never attended a Catholic school.
Eighty-seven percent of these former Catholics said that their decision to leave the Church is final.
Vitek noted that “this is a response given at a particular point in their life and they can’t predict the future. So there is always hope for the believing community.”
Studies do show, however, that “(m)ore and more, once a person chooses to disaffiliate from the Church they are not re-affiliating later in life,” he added.
As for what the Church can do to prevent young people from rejecting their faith, Vitek recommends, “We need to create a place where young people can freely wrestle with their questions of faith, including their doubt…”
“We found that young people want to talk about their faith but they aren’t sure if they can without judgment,” he said.
Read more at Catholic News Agency