As younger Catholics drift away, the church considers what works

From the Boston Globe: As Younger Catholics Drift Away, the Church Considers What Works.”

Some sobering data here. In 1990, one-third of U.S. children were Catholic. Now it’s 20%.

31.2% of U.S. citizens’ childhood affiliation is Catholic, but 20.9% have it as their current affiliation. The numbers for white mainline Protestants are 18% and 13.5%, a bit better. For white evangelicals it’s 17.8 and 15.6%; for black Protestants it’s 8.2 and 7.6%.

But some Catholic parishes are growing, and transforming the neighborhood as well. Go read about it.








11 responses to “As younger Catholics drift away, the church considers what works”

  1. Roger Durand Avatar

    Thank you for the posting and I read the article.

    In each vibrant and growing parish, that I have encountered, the only unifying link I see in place is the almost superhuman effort put forth by the pastor (or whoever is in charge) to be a human representation of St. Paul’s “all to all”

    Through effective leadership, working day and night, being everywhere and an ever-present presence, people become attracted and join in and growth occurs and parishes become vibrant again.

    This superhuman effort does come with a price. Let’s face it, Father cannot do this forever and exhaustion can be very tough on the parish and on the pastor.

    When Father eventually falls, and he will because he has been “all to all” for 20-25-30 years, are their others to rise to the occasion, doing and leading because it is the right thing to do……not so much.

    Therefore, I believe that vibrant parishes are effectively a “gift” from God, an oasis in a troubled world for a time, but the ultimate prognosis of the patient remains negative.

  2. John Kelleher Avatar
    John Kelleher

    One of the greatest tools to reach young people is, somewhat obviously, education. Catholic schools used to be a key component in parish life, but that is less and less true today. And this is despite the quarterly diocesan ‘second collections’ for the diocesan schools.

    When I started Catholic elementary school, there was no tuition. And there were 1800 kids in my K-8 school. In seventh grade, I landed in a new parish formed across town; us foreigners were charged $10 a month tuition.

    Our brand new high school, staffed by Brothers of Holy Cross, charged $300 a year. We were the third and then largest class with 150 boys, though built for 1600 eventually. For grins, I checked populations and tuition today. The elementary school has 225 students paying $8,000/year and the High School has 850 students at $18,650/year.

    Is there any wonder the kids aren’t living and breathing Catholicism?

    1. Patrick Freese Avatar
      Patrick Freese

      The optics of 5-figure tuition these days is only compounded by how expensive education in general is now, in the U.S at least. Back in the “good old days,” Catholic schools were able to get by with rock bottom tuition by having large class sizes (often more than public schools then) and mendicant sisters or brothers as faculty, who could be boarded cheaply in on-site convents funded by the parish.

      But then two things happened: 1) class sizes dropped, caused by families having fewer children and the unrelated push for more individualized attention to students, which caused the per student cost of Catholic education to climb, all other expenses being equal. 2) religious vocations declined, necessitating schools to turn to lay teachers, who had to be paid competitively with their unionized public school counterparts. The recent proliferation of expensive special education programs can also be a big budget buster.

      Public schools of course have experienced all these issues, but almost all of that is borne by local taxpayers. Catholic school parents however individually have to foot the full per student cost, which continues to become more uncompetitive with free public schools. Catholic schools fortunate enough to be in jurisdictions with voucher programs or generous tax write-offs obviously do better, but that doesn’t entirely solve the underlying issue.

      Catholic schools everywhere are hanging on the verge of going red, even while charging sky high tuition prices just to cover costs (often just partially, depending on how generous donors are). Sadly it’s a lot easier to identify causes than solutions to this expensive problem.

    2. Melissa Maykuth Avatar
      Melissa Maykuth

      Our parish school is relatively affordable (and we have vouchers from the state), but we have a dynamic where the most orthodox catholic families homeschool their children because they don’t trust that our school is Catholic enough. They refer to it as “Catholic sprinkles”. Our small school is lovely, very devout, has weekly mass, and had parties for the feast days of St Hildegard and St Francis thus far this year.

    3. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      By necessity schools employ a huge majority of their personnel and material resources for non-religious education. We know that American sports culture doesn’t bother with education–they draw participation by focusing on a single aspect. I wonder if it isn’t time to totally abandon education and focus on forming people–whole families–in faith and discipleship.

      1. Patrick Freese Avatar
        Patrick Freese

        Why? Catholic schools are proven to be one of the most effective means of passing the faith onto the next generation. I’ll grant you that many could (or should) lose their sports programs, among other frills, but no other institution does such a good job of weaving faith and reason for Catholic children seven hours a day, five days a week. They also serve as a natural stepping point for families to get more involved in the parish, which parishes without schools never seem to do as well with.

        To cite an example, my parochial elementary school was shut down on the advice of the parish council a few years after I left. They thought that would be an easy way to plug a budget deficit, and that they could put all their resources into CCD. Their CCD numbers actually declined that year and every year since. Four years later the parish was merged and closed, after losing a third of the congregation along with their offertory contributions. Turns out the school really did keep the parish together.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        Catholic schools once worked as part of a larger culture, and in their way. But today at best, their focus is inward, and the Gospel mandate is outward, out into the world. There is no longer any correlation with Catholic school attendance and two important factors: Sunday Mass attendance and knowledge of the faith.

        Your comment about “CCD” is telling and accurate. Intellectual religious education as usually practiced is like seed being thrown on concrete. Some might get blown into the nearby grass. We have forgotten how to form people in faith.

  3. Donna Zuroweste Avatar
    Donna Zuroweste

    What works is practicing what we preach, daily. The young will forgive our misses (in via) but not blatant hypocrisy (via, what via).

    The Church is facing the light of the times. Taking months to convene bishops to discuss global sexual abuse without explanation or progress reports is not transparency in their eyes. When they can assemble facts instantly, they have no patience or eye to the lengthy time it took for the PA report, or today’s NY Times report on T’s tax hanky panky.

    They are looking for authentic, vulnerable community dedicated to the common good for ALL the marginalized and oppressed, which they clearly articulate. They are not finding it lived in many churches, hence they become clinically depressed. They “know” we are hardwired for relationship, we never taught them that or how to be it. All of the church needs to be icons of Christ in INCLUSIVE Trinitarian relationship; until then, they have no need or desire for us.

    1. Melissa Maykuth Avatar
      Melissa Maykuth

      Amen to all of this! I’m in my early 40’s, and so many of my female friends are fed up. Of my friends who attended mass during college and early adulthood (so a fairly intentional and prayerful group), only a few are still active in their Catholic parishes. We are finding it hard to listen to homilies about sexual sin and being told to vote Republican, but hearing precious little about our treatment of immigrants, the poor, our neighbors, racism, etc. Our parish specifically was told to vote for the only pro-life candidate (Trump) and to ignore his sexual transgressions because that was just the media’s portrayal.

      I do have to wonder if women’s frustration with the church is contributing in a bigger way. In so many families, it seems that mothers are the ones encouraging families in their faith lives (no offense to the many intentional men here at PTB). If women are frustrated, it may have larger consequences than just that woman’s absence in the pew. It may mean that she is not passing on her faith the next generation. In a secular world where women’s voices and opinions matter, it is hard to face unloving attitudes at a church where we feel voiceless. I wonder if those in my generation and younger feel this more acutely? Or are we more frustrated because we don’t experience this in the workplace? Looking at my friends from my Catholic college and post-grad service years, I have to wonder.

      1. Sheila Kelly Avatar
        Sheila Kelly

        Thank you Melissa, you are so right! The US church has become synonymous with Republican politics, to our detriment. I remain active in my church because I am a disciple of Jesus and believe in the True Presence, but it gets harder every day.

  4. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    I find it a great distortion of the truth to link the Republican Party with Church leaders. Here’s what is closer to the truth: One of our political parties has elevated a “woman’s choice” to end the life of her unborn child to the level of a secular sacrament. The other party valiantly recognizes that an unborn child is a human being entitled to dignity and respect. Each party holds other important positions which may or may not reflect what Catholics think of as gospel values. Catholics who lean left or right see those positions from their own perspective. If I stand against the party that worships a “woman’s choice” I do so at the risk of being labeled a “republican” no matter what other positions I may hold. My interactions with young people tell me that a great many of them regard party politics as a contributing factor in their moving away from all institutions including the church.

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