Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Catholic Youth Catastrophe

Catholic parishes that have a sense that they are losing the young are probably correct. Not knowing what else to do, they are still instituting “LifeTeen” programs that provide an opportunity for young bands to play popular music at Mass, some of it easily mistaken for a teenage jam session. They are also working to further make their educational programs more “relevant” to the lives of teens. ‘

What they do not realize is that it is precisely this sort of pandering that could be the source of the problem. In any case, it is obvious enough that this is not working.

Cause and effect is impossible to prove in social science, but it just can’t be purely coincidental that the meltdown of Catholic youth participation began its total meltdown around the same time that parishes started this trend toward treating them as a special segment within the Church that needed anything but clear teaching, solid doctrinal instruction, and solemn liturgy.

Consider the most detailed survey to date on youth attitudes toward religion. Conducted by Christian Smith of Notre Dame and the National Study of Youth and Religion, and reported in a book called Soul Searching, here is what he found.

He found a relatively lower level of religiosity and laxity of Catholic teenagers compared to teenagers in other U.S. Christian traditions. Among their findings are that when compared with Conservative Protestants, Black Protestants and Mormons, Catholic teens:
  • Have lower levels of attendance at religious services;
  • Would not attend religious services less if totally up to themselves;
  • Report that their religion is less important in shaping their daily lives and life decisions;
  • Substantially feel themselves less close to God;
  • Have somewhat more doubts about their religious beliefs;
  • Believe less that God is a personal being involved in the lives of people today;
  • Believe substantially less in a judgment day when God will reward some and punish others;
  • Believe less in miracles, the existence of angels, and life after death;
  • Believe more in reincarnation, astrology and in psychics and fortune-tellers;
  • Less have made a personal commitment to live life for God;
  • By a substantial margin fewer ever had an experience of spiritual worship that was very moving and powerful;
  • Fewer have shared their religious faith with someone not of their faith;
  • Pray less frequently;
  • Fewer are involved in a religious youth group;
  • Fewer are in congregation that have a designated youth minister;
  • Have less frequently attended Sunday School/CCD, been on a religious retreat, attended a religious conference or rally or camp, or been on a religious mission or service project;
  • Less frequently openly express their faith at school;
  • Less likely to have adults in their church, other than family members, whom they enjoy talking with and who give lots of encouragement;
  • More frequently report that they are bored in church;
  • Less frequently report that they find church a place that helps them think about important things;
  • Less frequently report that their congregation has helped them understand their own sexuality and sexual morality;
  • Less frequently report that their congregation has done a good job teaching them about their own religion.
The survey also reports that only 19 % of U.S. Catholic teenagers attend mass on a weekly basis and that 40% never attend. Truly, these are catastrophic findings. It means the loss of an entire generation, all accomplished in the name of winning them back. Those in charge don’t often see the connection because those who leave are gone and they go without explanation. Those who stay are the ones who don’t mind the pandering, the cheesy music, the fluffy teaching. Intelligent kids who can recognize that they aren’t be treated as emerging adults take off never return.

The researchers summarize: “It appears…that too many U.S. Catholics have through inertia continued to rest assured that old organizational structures were taking care of their children when in fact they increasingly have not been. And so many or most Catholics teenagers now pass through a Church system that has not fully come to terms with its own institutional deficit and structural vacuum with regard to providing substantial and distinctive Catholic socialization, education, and pastoral ministry for its teenagers.”

Of course most of the policies that are driving kids away are being put in place by people in the 40s, 50s, and 60s who can’t remember what it was like to be young and have older people attempt to spoon feed you and attempt to re-create a shoddy version of the secular culture that already envelopes the young. If the Church has nothing different, nothing challenging, nothing intelligent, and nothing fundamentally radical to offer, why bother? The youth see this even if their parents do not.

This confusion is not somehow limited to “progressives” in the Church. Generally conservative groups that place a strong emphasis on Catholic teaching also exhibit fundamental confusion, particularly as regards music in the liturgy. Unless something changed since the last time I checked (a year ago), at any camp sponsored by the group FOCUS, you are more likely to hear trap sets and loud guitars at Mass than Gregorian chant. Further, FOCUS seems to be sending its college missionaries out into the field armed with a vast repertoire of sacro-pop music but virtually no knowledge or experience in true liturgical music.

By the age of 18, kids can understand the difference between real Church music and pop tunes designed to manipulate them. What this approach ends up doing is driving away serious people, leaving only those who participate in the programs because they otherwise lack a social circle. In any case, this music is not accomplishing its goal; quite the reverse. If anyone can get through to the FOCUS leadership about this issue, be my guest. I’ve had no luck.

Is there hope? Absolutely. No group is so hungry for good liturgy as that which has been utterly starved for access to solemnity. Many people who have looked at the Simple English Propers carefully have concluded that the group most likely to feel drawn toward its solemnity and sacredness are the emerging adults. The Lifeteen groups are precisely the ones that will be drawn to the sense of liturgical accomplishment that singing these chants will elicit in their hearts and minds.

We can get the youth back. But it will take a dramatic turnaround in the strategies used over the last decade or so.