“Where Are All the Young People?”

Young LGBT Catholics at World Youth Day in 2013

“Where are the young people?” This seems to be the million dollar question in the American Church right now, prompting an abundance of books and studies, and listening sessions all searching for an answer.

The causes for why those ages 18-40 are mostly absent from the life of the church are many, but if the church is truly concerned about their absence, then a reality check about LGBT issues is the starting point.

Fr. Peter Daly added to this conversation about young adults in his recent column for the National Catholic Reporter. Daly’s parish in Maryland hosted a listening session for young adults, who are “the missing ingredient in parish life nearly everywhere.” Less than 10% of the 500 young adults invited attended and, by Daly’s assessment, those present were practicing Catholics. They were not the “truly alienated” for whom “the church is a dead letter, not the good news.”

Daly sketches the responses and his reactions, which included:

“The No. 1 issue by far, which came up over and over again, was the Catholic church’s treatment of lesbians and gays. Everyone, conservative or liberal, disagreed with the church on that.

“One young lady wrote me a note, saying, ‘Being gay is NOT a choice. [Emphasis hers.] Many of my friends are gay. I want to bring my gay friends to church — but they do not feel accepted.’

“One young man, a lawyer, said the Catholic church is the ‘most sexist and homophobic institution of significance in our culture.’ He noted that there is no discussion of issues like women’s ordination in the church. It is just not to be discussed. He felt the church just dismissed women’s opinions.”

Indeed, even Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami who recently threatened church workers’ jobs for supporting marriage equality, has admitted that for young Catholics, “Language like ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner.”

The participants at Fr. Daly’s parish also noted as problems the lack of accountability in the church, the way priests promote their partisan, conservative agendas during Mass, and the failure to welcome all. One young woman, who attends a United Church of Christ, said:

” ‘You say that all are welcome, but that is not true. Gays are not welcome. Catholics are the most judgmental group…If you don’t follow all the precepts, you are excluded.’ “

Fr. Daly wonders whether these experiences and understandings are more broadly applicable. I believe that they hold true for much of the rest of the American Church. As someone in his mid-20s who travels in Catholic circles, I’m frequently asked about where my peers are and how to welcome them into the church’s life. In identifying LGBT exclusion as the number one issue, Fr. Daly and I agree, but I would add three more comments.

First, the hurt and frustration about LGBT exclusion is not unique to young Catholics. We are not the first generation to tire of anti-gay bishops or legalistic parish ministers, but there is a key difference between us and our predecessors. Millennial Catholics, those ages 18-30, feel almost no obligation to remain Catholic or attend Mass whereas our parents and grandparents may have struggled longer to remain. We are a generation of spiritual seekers who desire faith communities that add value to our lives and help us to live and love more authentically. If the Catholic Church cannot offer a compelling vision for why it greatly enables us in this search, then we will search elsewhere. And every time a gay church worker is fired or a longtime lesbian couple is denied Communion, the church pushes us further and further away.

Second, young Catholics are mostly going somewhere else for church rather than nowhere. We move to small faith communities, Dignity chapters, more welcoming Christian denominations, or other religious traditions. We are building up “para-church communities” where bread is broken during home liturgies and potluck suppers, often with a heavily Catholic flair. We are working daily to build up God’s reign, increasingly becoming the idealists with “good hearts and good instincts…[who] want to respond to people with compassion and hospitality,” as Fr. Daly observed. The listening session at his parish asked participants, “Why don’t you come to church?” But this question misses what is happening in small pockets across the country. It would be more appropriate to ask, “In what ways are you living your faith, understood as response to God’s love, in community?”

Third, Fr. Daly says he is unsure whether another generation of Catholics will exist, though he is hopeful. I am very much hopeful for the church’s future. Young Catholics are shedding concerns about institutional rules and obligatory Mass attendance in favor of living the Gospels. We are being church in radically welcome and affirm all people and help them become the persons God calls them to be, especially the LGBT communities so marginalized by Catholic structures. When I interact with high schoolers, I see that homosexuality is a settled issue and questions about gender identity only arise so they can become more educated allies. Taking to heart God’s option for the poor and vulnerable, young Catholics are not only criticizing episcopal hypocrisy but actively rebuilding the church in new ways.

Catholics between the ages of 18 and 40 may not be attending Mass or registering at their local parish. The coming generation may quantitatively shrink and institutional structures may struggle because the legacy of anti-LGBT and anti-women practices and pronouncements is too deep. But for those young Catholics who remain or return later to commit to the work of rebuilding, their faith lived in the Catholic community is the mustard seed that God’s grace can grow and grow and grow. Trusting in God’s spirit is key for the numbers are bleak, but on a qualitative level, the future is indeed quite bright.

How would you answer this question about where all the young people are? Leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related post

Bondings 2.0:  Theologian Challenges Pax Christi to Embrace LGBT Equality and Justice

14 Responses to “Where Are All the Young People?”

  1. Stephen says:

    I’m a 32 year old gay male. Simply put. This age bracket will not put up with any idiocy coming from the higher ups. Period.

  2. Friends says:

    Exceptionally good (and hopeful) article, Bob! On the other hand — or perhaps even on the same hand — is the genuine explanation of why so many young Catholics are saying “no way” about becoming actively involved in the institutional Church. Item one on this list: the outrageous (indeed, crazed) and well-published rants of the likes of Cardinal Burke. The Christian Science Monitor — one of the most well-respected centrist newspapers in the country — has just published a fair review of the Burke problem. It’s well worth linking here:
    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2015/0114/Cardinal-decries-feminized-Catholic-Church-in-backlash-against-pope-s-reforms

    Until this embarrassing public presentation of the Church as a bunch of carping and crazed far-right-wingers is overcome, don’t expect young folks to gather around the altar!

  3. Adam James says:

    I was compelled to write the novel ‘sacrifice to their gods’, amzn.to/14tIeZ4 precisely to explain how it was for my generation to learn that you are gay, and how it affects your life and your relationship with your Catholic Church.

  4. Bob Burns says:

    My wife and I have four children three girls and one son (who is gay) they are all in the age 40 range. Only one continues to attend church. The others simply refused to attend due to the treatment of their brother. As one daughter said “if the Catholic church does not want my brother I don’t want the church” How can you not understand that.

    • Adam James says:

      Please tell all three of your children to search for a Catholic Church that accepts them and wants them. They are out there; been there done that.

  5. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    I would answer the question, “Where are all the young people?” with another question. Why do we want to know? If we (I’m 60+) hope to entice them back to the institutional church, I think the desire is delusional and selfish. It is delusional because I believe these generations are busy living the Gospels. It is selfish because they shouldn’t be expected to fix the institution. I think we should see them in the words of Matthew 4:19. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” They are the face and voice of Jesus. I have found these generations to be filled with the Holy Spirit and hungry to be about God’s work. We need to be where they are and support their work. And we need to offer our experience and spiritual knowledge with humility and when/ if asked by them to share. These generations are awesome and, personally, I will gladly stand by them in their pursuits.

    • Friends says:

      Brava, Rose! I’m a highly-educated “Cradle Catholic”, and now an active member of the UMass-Amherst Newman Center Catholic Community. We are indeed lucky (and blessed) to have the students whom we have in regular participation. According to University Admissions statistics, 15,000 of our students identified their religious affiliation (in their applications) as “Roman Catholic”. But (by one chaplain’s estimate), we only see about 300 of them on the premises, over the course of a semester! Unless we engage these Catholic students with the vital social mission and outreach of the Church, and ignore the stupidities being proclaimed by Cardinal Burke and his ilk, we’re going to have “nada participation” in another few decades. Something is badly dysfunctional in Church governance here — and it needs to be identified and fixed.

  6. K says:

    29 year old pansexual here. Despite the horrible abuses of my childhood parish, I’ve tried to return to the Church. Most of the Catholic authorities I’ve met (priests, deacons, Eucharistic ministers, etc) welcome LGBTQ people and bemoan the Church’s homophobia. It is possible to find niches in American Catholic communities that are welcoming.
    What’s pushed me away from my local parish in Nashville was their aggression over birth control and abortion. I’m a sex educator, that’s my job, but the parish brought in the Knights of Columbus to misinform and bemoan safe sex practices. Not only am I personally offended, but they make my job so much harder.

    • john says:

      What exactly was said? was it what was presented or how it was presented!

      • K says:

        “Today we celebrate the women who convert to obey their husbands’ and fathers’ wills, and urge other women to look to their example. Don’t fall for the deceptive emptiness of childlessness.” And while I was walking out I caught bits like “no pill can substitute the fulfillment of motherhood” and “condoms don’t work and won’t bring you happiness”

      • john says:

        So it was what was said and is indeed pretty horrible in part. What was wrong with what was said in last sentence.

      • K says:

        Both statements are incorrect and inappropriate. Firstly, condoms do work 97% of the time they are used correctly. Condoms make me very happy for dozens of reasons that I won’t list here, most of them relating to my job.

        Secondly, to make an objective, valuing statement about fulfillment is inappropriate – particularly since the people making the statement about the pill vs. motherhood were all men. No one person can claim what would be more fulfilling for anyone other than themselves, particularly large groups of people different from the speaker. The statement about pill vs. motherhood ignores the fact that a large portion of people who use birth control already have children and simply don’t want more either permanently or temporarily. And then all the people who take the pill for medical reasons, such as PCOS, and not for birth control.

  7. I am a Catholic priest from a large family, eight sisters living! The reason i mention my sisters is that the main reasons I hear them say why many of them don’t relate to the Church is not (mainly) its teachings about gay/lesbian people, but its approach to women. Though the two issues are certainly related (fear of the ‘feminine’?), the issue that must be dealt with now for any progress to be made with young people is this: how can women be equal to men in the Church we were all baptized into? If this is not dealt with in an open discussion in the period leading up to the Synod on Marriage and Family in The Autumn of 2015, it will be a failure.

  8. Adam James says:

    It would be helpful if the questionnaire that Pope Francis asked to be distributed to the people in the pews would actually make it past the bishops.

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