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From the April, 2007 issue of Touchstone


Youth in Formation by Matthew G. Alderman

Youth in Formation

Four Scholars at Fordham Confront the Catholic Teen Dilemma

by Matthew G. Alderman

But, why did Jesus get whacked?” quoted the pert, red-jacketed woman on the stage. Laughter rang out in the long, low hall as veteran youth minister Margaret McCarty recalled a question from a baffled teen she’d once heard in catechism class. Young people want to know the faith, she explained, and need an environment where an adult won’t grin at theological terminology that is more The Sopranos than the Nicene Creed.

Fordham’s Pope Auditorium was packed with twenty-something youth leaders from Long Island, timid college students, mossy academic types, and a handful of black-suited priests. Next to me in the nosebleed seats, a gangly youth in a yarmulke emphatically scribbled notes. The evening’s topic: Catholic Teenagers: Faith at Risk?

Virtually nobody under eighteen showed up.

Alarming Findings

McCarty, founder of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, was one of the evening’s four panelists, brought together by the university’s Center on Religion and Culture.

They had come to discuss the alarming findings presented in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith, principal investigator of the National Study on Youth and Religion and director of Notre Dame’s Center for the Sociology of Religion. Purdue’s James Davidson, Alison Donohue of Regis High School campus ministry, and Smith himself were present. Notre Dame president emeritus Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C., acted as moderator.

Smith explained that the National Study conducted nearly 3,000 parent-child phone interviews, with follow-up as the respondents grew older, supplemented by 267 personal interviews with teens in 45 states. As far as Catholicism is concerned, the results were appalling.

When the seventeen interviewers finally compared notes, Smith recalled, “we all . . . looked at each other and said, ‘What is up with the Catholic teenagers?’” In nearly all sociological measures of religious strength, Catholics fared poorly, showing “a thin connection” to the age-old faith, both “in their lives and in their imaginations.” Mormons did the best, while Jews proved even more lax than Catholics.

The study divides believing teens into four groups: the devoted, the regulars, the sporadic, and the disengaged. Catholic teens are most likely to be sporadic and least likely to be devoted. Of Catholic teens surveyed:

• 85% believe in God
• 71% have made First Communion
• 64% think that God is involved in their lives
• 62% pray alone at least once a week
• 40% attend Mass about once a week
• 40% went to Confession in the last year
• 23% are in at least one service or mission project

Most apparent to the speakers was the need for basic catechesis. Teens need content, Smith remarked: “They may rework it, they may reject it, they may do anything. . . . At least they have something to work with.” The study’s results depict not mass apostasy but the fruits of simple ignorance.

On first seeing the numbers, McCarty had been struck by the difference between the report’s subjects and her own charges: Where did they find all these bewildered teens? The problem is not the fervent core, but the invisible millions who don’t show up at Mass.

Smith said one unique aspect of Catholicism distorted the study: Fallen-away Catholics self-identify with Catholicism more than lapsed members of other denominations identify with their former churches. As a consequence, their inclusion may have unduly darkened the study’s findings, at least in comparison with other bodies.

Modeling Parents

However flawed, the statistics still cannot be explained away. A critical problem area is parental involvement in the spiritual lives of their children. For many Catholic teens, there isn’t any, but there should be. Whatever facades teens put up, they listen to their parents. “We will get what we are,” encapsulated Smith. What parents model in the home, their children will practice in their own lives.

This issue goes back to the spiritual formation of today’s parents. Davidson, a sociologist of religion, remarked that even in the much-idolized 1950s, “Catholic teenagers were more likely to be playing basketball in the parish gym than they were to attend Lenten liturgies.”

A comparison of the report with similar information from the last fifty years shows a downward trend in faith just barely starting to turn around. Today’s teens may be doing slightly better than their immediate predecessors.

Davidson chalked this up to the traumatic shift that occurred in the 1960s as certain interpretations of the Second Vatican Council became prevalent in the United States. For instance, a breakdown by generation of those who go to confession at least yearly reveals this pattern:

• 40% of today’s teens go
• 39% of the post-Vatican II generation went
• 40% of the Vatican II generation went
• 58% of the pre-Vatican II generation went

Oddly absent from the discussions was the idea that a misunderstanding of Vatican II—what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”—may have aided the chronological slide. Indeed, the growing interest in Catholic tradition among some older teens and young adults was touched on only obliquely and almost dismissively. This was surprising, considering the documentation of this trend in Colleen Carroll’s The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.

McCarty welcomed an interest in older customs when pursued with knowledge and in the right spirit. Donohue thought such cultural divides irrelevant, saying, “Teenagers are more innocent [in regard to the] polarizations, liberal, conservative. . . . I have to discipline myself not to put them in a category based on something quite innocent that they might remark.”

She took great pains to underline the nontraditional nature of the Catholicism her students practice. Adult preconceptions of the faith may hinder its passage to the young, she explained. For her teens, the faith depends on relationships and community. They are often syncretistic in their faith and prefer it to be grounded in experience rather than obligation. She seemed to welcome this generational malleability as proof of Catholicism’s strength.

Smith, by contrast, spoke of the vague faith of the young as non-Christian “moralistic, therapeutic deism”—essentially the feeling that God’s out there, we should be nice to each other, and we should be happy. The problem with this, as McCarty pointed out, is that there is absolutely no Christian dogma in this generic, cross-denominational way of practicing religion.

What solution do the panelists propose?

Parental involvement remains key, McCarty explained. “Our parents can’t teach what they do not know, and we need to help parents express their own religious faith and identity.” Adults must know their faith if they are to pass it on to their children.

Davidson pointed out that a detailed knowledge of doctrine is not necessarily as important as a basic emphasis on the central place of the faith in family life. To achieve this, he said, the church must reach out to young Catholic parents, both those active in parish life and those outside of it.

Malloy stressed that adult mentorship is essential in preventing peer leadership from becoming “shared ignorance.” It also gives teens something they can return home to after whiz-bang events like World Youth Day.

Centering on Christ

What aspects of religion initially attract teens must also be discerned. As Davidson remarked, “Many young people don’t want to start with Bible study or learning. They want to start with behavior and engagement and participation. With the proper guidance . . . they can be brought from that beginning point to a greater understanding of what the faith is all about and what it represents cognitively and intellectually.”

The goal, McCarty said, is to bring together head, hands, and heart: “head—most certainly teach them about what we believe; heart—let’s encourage them to develop a relationship with the person of Jesus; and hands—which is why mission trips are so important in this day and age.”

In the end, this synthesis centered on Christ as the one who works—who transcends left, right, and center, pre-conciliar, conciliar, and post-conciliar viewpoints. If, in the end, after all the mission trips and catechesis, we can show our teens the face of Christ, in all its compassion and charity, then we will have the greatest answer to the very serious and solemn question of why indeed Jesus had to get whacked.

Matthew G. Alderman is a freelance writer, liturgical artist, and contributor to several blogs, including and He was recently named an assistant editor for Dappled Things, an online literary magazine for young Catholic writers. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he lives in Manhattan, where he works in the field of architecture and attends the Catholic Church of Our Saviour.



Believing Problem

There’s a disconnect between them and the institutional church,” says sociologist James A. Davidson of Purdue University, describing the “Millennial Generation” of Catholics born after 1979. “And when they get older, they are not going to be like the Catholics of previous generations. They are going to be the Catholics they are now.”

One of the authors of a new book, American Catholics Today, he adds that “belonging is not a problem; they feel comfortable calling the church home. And I don’t think serving is a problem. It’s the believing that’s the problem.”

According to their study, which used data from Gallup surveys, only 37 percent of this generation of Catholics believe homosexual acts always wrong, and only 21 percent think premarital sexual activity always wrong. Only 7 percent thought opposition to abortion a core Catholic teaching.

The “Millennial Generation” makes up 9 percent of the Catholic Church in America.

The data is taken from Nancy Frazier O’Brien’s “Sociologists see strong identity, less commitment in young Catholics,” published by the Catholic News Service, February 7, 2007.

— David Mills



“Youth in Formation” first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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