Young Catholics in America

The Vital Importance of the Family for Faith

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The latest contribution to analysing the religious and spiritual lives of young adults in the United States the book, “Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone From the Church,” (Oxford University Press).

It is authored by Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, along with co-authors Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen.

For a number of years Smith, along with others, has been working on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion. He has previously authored books based on this data: “Souls in Transition,” and “Lost in Transition.”

In this book, instead of comparing young adult Catholics to older Catholics he examined how some young Catholics are different from others and why this is so.

Smith described how a variety of social and cultural changes in past decades have led to a situation where today the transition to adulthood is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in the past.

Examining the situation of Catholics aged 18-25 Smith found several consistent trends.

+ Over the last four decades there is little change in their beliefs, attitudes and practices. The historical changes among emerging adults largely happened before the 1970s.

+ Catholic emerging adults over the past four decades look remarkably similar to their non-Catholic contemporaries.

+ A significant difference between Catholic and non-Catholic emerging adults is in church attendance. Catholics exhibit a more dramatic decline in church attendance than their non-Catholic peers.

After looking at various surveys about opinions on a variety of cultural and social issues the study concluded that for at least two generations most Catholics have been culturally assimilated into mainstream American culture.

Thus, with the exception of immigrant families, mostly Hispanic, most Catholic emerging adults have not grown up in households that adhered to distinctive social and cultural practices related to their faith.

Traditional Catholics

Nevertheless, some Catholics do grow up in households with parents that describe themselves as traditional Catholics. Smith found that: “On numerous important outcomes, emerging adults with parents who described themselves as traditional Catholics stand out from other types of Catholic emerging adults.”

Catholics from these traditional households end up practicing their faith more regularly and holding more orthodox beliefs. As well, the transmission of the Catholic faith is more effective when teenagers had both parents who are Catholic.

At the end of the detailed analysis of young Catholics Smith and his co-authors arrived at a number of conclusions.

First, the Catholic Church in America is still coming to terms with the major demographic and organizational transformations of the twentieth century. In a very large part the current challenges, and opportunities are not of recent origin.

The critical factor on which many of the underlying forces converged “was the inability, and sometimes unwillingness, of a critical mass of the parents of the Catholic and ex-Catholic emerging adults we studied – and those half a generation earlier – to model, teach, and pass on the faith to their children.”

This situation was worsened by the dramatic decline in the number of priests and religious men and women who had helped form the faith of past generations of Catholics.

Second, while young Catholics as a group resemble the larger population of young adults, not all Catholics are identical. Among the people they surveyed and interviewed there was a wide range, from embittered youth who scorned the Church, to those who attend Mass regularly.

Following on from this another conclusion is that the label Catholic can mean many different things, depending on the criteria used for definition.

Stability and change

Regarding the changes from the teenage years to adulthood the research indicates that there is a significant amount of stability. Individual behaviors or beliefs may change, but many remain largely stable in their religious identity.

There is a tendency, however, to a decline in religious practice, with only a small minority who increase their level of practice as they transition to early adulthood.

Crucial to the religious and spiritual lives of Catholic youth is close relationships with adults who help to form them in their faith and serve as reference points. These adults can be parents or other adults. These ties do not guarantee religiousness in young people, but in their absence, the likelihood of Catholic youth increasing or maintaining their faith is very low.

A final conclusion is that Catholic teenagers who went to Catholic schools had higher levels of religiousness, especially attendance at Mass, but this positive effect often dissipates in the transition to college studies.

Overall, the authors concluded that after more than a decade of study they found that practicing Catholic emerging adults are people who were well formed as children, whose faith became personally meaningful as teenagers, and whose parents were the primary agents in their formation.

The role of family formation, adult role models, and personal internalization of faith confirm that in the face of radical cultural changes some fundamentals remain the same.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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