“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