Apr 10, 2013

From the Archives

The Spiritual Journeys of Young Catholics

On February 7, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected the Obama Administration’s revised rules regarding mandated insurance coverage for contraceptive health. Less than a week later, on February 12, Pope Benedict XVI resigned, citing his age and failing health. While unrelated, these events reveal a faith segment very much at a crossroads.

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Representing about one quarter of Americans, the Catholic church continues to grapple with the consequences of its sex scandals, faces increasing political pressures and—like many of its evangelical counterparts—must deal with growing disillusionment among its youth. A Barna study among young adults ages 18-29 who attended a Catholic church at some point during their teenage years, looks at the faith journeys of these young Catholics and how these controversial issues factor into their faith and their perspective of the church.

Sexuality and Birth Control
The Catholic church’s stance on some of the most divisive social and political issues of the day has garnered significant media attention. And issues of reproductive health appear to be one of the major disconnects for some young Catholics and the church. Yet, reflecting our increasingly fragmented society, millions of other young Catholics have no qualms at all with these teachings on sexuality.

The study shows most young adults who identify as Catholic say “the church’s teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date” (60%). Still, only one-quarter of young Catholics (23%) say this perception is “completely true” of their experience—the most extreme end of the scale provided to survey respondents.

The segment of 18-29-year-old Catholics surveyed includes a range of individuals, from those who are very active to those who have essentially dropped out of church. Among young Catholics who are still religiously active, only one-third (37%) raises some level of concern about the church’s teachings on birth control and sexuality and just 12% say it’s “completely true” for them that the church’s teachings on these matters feel out of date.

In contrast, among young adults who have dropped out of Catholic churches, 69% are concerned about the church’s teachings on sexuality and birth control and 23% say this is a major concern. It is important to note that this kind of survey research does not imply causation—we do not know if or how these views about sexuality affected the spiritual journey of those who dropped out of church, only that the connection exists.

Interestingly, among those who attended a Catholic or faith-related school growing up, 65% said they have some misgivings about the church’s stance on sexuality and birth control, slightly above the average.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and author of You Lost Me, points out that these data have to be interpreted in light of the millions of young people who are represented across the spectrum of viewpoints. “Even when we look at a fairly defined demographic segment like young adult Catholics, we find a great deal of differences. While many young Catholics are at odds with Catholic teaching on matters of birth control, only about one-quarter are very discontent and many do not at all share these perceptions.”

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Clergy Abuse Scandals
The priest abuse scandals are another controversial dimension of today’s Catholic experience—and one that has had inevitable impact on many people’s beliefs and feelings toward the church. Among all 18-29-year-olds who have a Catholic background, 43% say the “priest abuse scandals have made me question my faith,” with 11% indicating this is completely true of their experience.

This perception was particularly common among young Catholic dropouts: 57% say this has been a stumbling block for them and 11% say this has been a major obstacle to their faith.

The study also looked at how young Catholic’s feel about the church’s stance toward ordaining women. Overall, just under half (45%) of young Catholics say it bothers them “that the Church does not ordain women as priests.” Just 14% feel strongly about this. Young Catholics who remain active in the church are even more likely than lapsed Catholics to say this is an important consideration (13% versus 9%). While not a majority view among young Catholics, it is a very strongly held sentiment even among those who have stayed connected to the Church.

The Faith Journeys of Young Catholics
“Keeping the next generation” has consistently been a major concern of religious institutions, but perhaps never more so than today. With the well-documented rise of the “nones”—those claiming no religious affiliation—and the growing number of young church exiles, faith leaders of all kinds are focusing on how to attract and keep young people. The Catholic church is no exception, and in many ways, faces some unique challenges in retaining its future congregants.

A majority (56%) of young Catholics (ages 18-29) admit they’ve dropped out of attending church at some point after having gone regularly. This percentage is slightly lower than the dropout rate among young Protestants with a Christian background (61%). Still, 65% of Catholic-raised young adults say they are less religiously active today than they were at age 15, which is slightly higher than their Protestant counterparts (58%).

Also, more than half of young Catholics (51%) say they have been significantly frustrated with their faith and four in 10 (41%) have gone through a period when they felt significant doubts about their faith. These rates are on par with young Protestants.

While many young Catholics may have left the church or questioned their faith at some level, very few have outright abandoned their Catholic roots. Only one in three (35%) admit to having gone through a period when they felt like rejecting their parent’s faith (statistically on par with the 32% of young Protestants).

Yet, while most young Catholics may have dropped out of church at some point, the desire to be part of a historic religious institution remains. Four in ten young Christians (41%) say they’d rather have “a traditional faith than be part of a hip version of Christianity.” Similarly, most young Catholics still consider themselves spiritual. Only three out of 10 (29%) say they are less spiritual today than they were at age 15.

So if most young Catholics embrace their religious roots, are spiritually oriented and desire a traditional faith, why the high drop-out rates? One reason may be that many young adults find Mass to be dull and uninteresting. One-fifth of all young Catholics (18%) admit, while they know Mass is supposed to be meaningful, they consistently find it to be a boring obligation. Two-thirds say this has been true for them at least some of the time.

Young Catholics also admit they feel excluded in church at the expense of older adults. One in four young Catholics say they’ve felt their parish values older people more than younger people.

Not surprisingly, compared to those young adults who remain religiously active, Catholic dropouts are more likely to express these kinds of criticisms of their experience with Catholicism.

One of the surprising revelations of the research is that those who have attended a Catholic or faith related school are essentially no more favorable—or unfavorable—than the norm toward Catholicism, the church and Mass. Attending a Catholic school doesn’t seem to cause additional disaffection, but neither does it insulate students from such frustrations. In fact, about one-quarter of all young Catholics (26%) say they had a mostly negative experience in Catholic school. Among those who attended, the proportion is about two out of five (40%) who remember their educational experience unfavorably.

With the bishop’s recent announcement regarding health insurance and contraceptive coverage, there’s a lot of skepticism about young people’s positions on these issues. Yet the data suggests that most active young Catholics are in agreement with the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control and sexuality. Additionally, while many devout Catholics are discussing this—and other recent church and political clashes—as religious liberty issues, that’s not what younger adults are talking about. In fact, a recent Barna study found that religious liberty isn’t much of a concern for young people.

“While the Catholic Bishops’ decision will likely connect with religiously active younger Catholics—who tend to be conservative on matters of sexuality,” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “An important part of the story seems to be in how those young Catholics who have left the church—or who are moderately active—feel about these issues. Interestingly, among those who are just semi-active in the Catholic church, their perceptions of sexuality are much more like those of Catholic dropouts, which suggests the struggles over birth control and reproduction are likely to affect millions of ‘swing’—that is, moderately involved—Catholics.”

Kinnaman says that while “it’s worth understanding the spiritual journeys of a group of people,” that does not mean trying to cater to their preferences of church or religion. “Leaders have to be in tune with the people they are serving,” he says. “Especially in America’s increasingly fragmented religious landscape where people are influenced by many factors beyond their church or spiritual heritage.”

He also points out that doubts, questions and even dropping out of church for a time are not always the end of the story. “We have to acknowledge that the spiritual transitions people experience can be a good, productive thing,” Kinnaman says. “Anyone who takes their faith seriously will at some point in their life call certain aspects of it into question—and that includes the priorities and teachings of their religious institution. It isn’t necessarily the doubting or the questioning that’s cause for concern—it’s what young people do as a result of those questions.

“And, with nearly two-thirds of young Catholics having dropped out of church at some point, this should be a high priority among Catholic church leaders, as it has become among many Protestant leaders. Being effective among Millennials requires understanding what makes them tick, which includes knowing how the church’s teachings and positions on key social issues affects and is interpreted by young Catholics.”

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About the Research

This Barna Update is based on research conducted for the Faith That Lasts Project. The research included a series of national public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group.

In addition to extensive quantitative interviewing with adults and faith leaders nationwide, the main research examination for the study was conducted with 18- to 29-year-olds who had been active in a Christian church at some point in their teen years. The quantitative study among 18- to 29-year-olds was conducted online with 1,296 current and former churchgoers. The Faith That Lasts research also included parallel testing on key measures using telephone surveys, including interviews conducted among respondents using cell phones, to help ensure the representativeness of the online sample. The sampling error associated with 1,296 interviews is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

The sample of young Catholics included 536 interviews with18- to 29-year-olds who had experience attending a Catholic church prior to age 18. The sampling error associated with this sample is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

The online study relied upon a research panel called KnowledgePanel®, created by Knowledge Networks. It is a probability-based online non-volunteer access panel. Panel members are recruited using a statistically valid sampling method with a published sample frame of residential addresses that covers approximately 97% of U.S. households. Sampled non-Internet households, when recruited, are provided a netbook computer and free Internet service so they may also participate as online panel members. KnowledgePanel consists of about 50,000 adult members (ages 18 and older) and includes persons living in cell phone only households.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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