Many of our readers in the United States may today be wishing they could vote “None” as they cast their ballots, but today’s post concerns a different kind of “None.” These are people who are religiously unaffiliated, and they are on the rise particularly among younger people. I pose a few questions for reflection (and invite your comments at the end of today’s post):
Is the Church today, led by Pope Francis, evolving quickly enough to recapture younger generations turned off by the church’s treatment of LGBT people? What about just retaining those younger faithful who have remained thus far? And if all these Catholics have left for good, what does that mean for the church?
Research from the Public Religion Research Institute, on which Bondings 2.0 reported in September, confirmed that the number of “Nones” in the United States continues to grow. This umbrella demographic for people who have no formal religious affiliation contains many people who had been initiated into the Catholic Church, but who no longer identify as Catholic or who many not be practicing. With 39% of young adults identifying as “Nones,” they are now the largest religious denomination, as it were, among younger generations.
Further, a striking 39% of Catholic respondents cited negative teachings about LGBT people as a primary reason for their disaffiliation. But based on how U.S. church leaders continue to rant, there seems to be little recognition of how deeply damaging prejudice and discrimination have been for the church. Bishops have responded to the growing number of Nones in at least the two following ways.
First, some bishops likely consider being a None a temporary state. They expect younger generations will return to church once these young adults settle down and start families, like generations before them did. But Kaya Oakes wrote in Religion Dispatches about a significant change in these present young adults compared with their parents and grandparents:
“[B]ack to the idea that religiously unaffiliated adults will some day return to religious practice. Both Pew and PRRI use the term ‘religious switching’ to describe both those who change religions and those who leave organized religion. Whereas in the ’70s those who grew up religiously unaffiliated were not likely to stay that way as adults, two-thirds of adults today who were raised without religion stay nonreligious. In other words, this is becoming permanent.”
Second, some bishops may not be too concerned that Catholics whom they consider heterodox or unfaithful are leaving the church; indeed, a smaller and purer church is the ideal for prelates like Archbishop Charles Chaput.
While this exclusionary approach is not quite in keeping with the inclusiveness of Jesus’ life and ministry, the church in the U.S. may be smaller in some areas (though not purer) if the Nones have left for good. Oakes noted cultural and social factors at work, like a greater consciousness of religious diversity and the growth of interfaith marriages. All of these factors make religion less salient for the younger generation. 66% of respondents even said “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” Of these trends, Oakes commented:
“Given the high percentage of those who have left because of the treatment of LGBTQ people, one can easily see why this negative perception exists. As many Americans came to an acceptance of the equal rights of LGBTQ people, multiple religions floundered in their understandings of gender and sexuality. . .
“Hokey ‘young adult’ ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.”
Oakes said the better questions for churches to ask is what can be done without younger generations because, in her words, “they are not coming back, and given what they’re being presented, why should they?”
In Catholic contexts, much of the more positive presentations about religion have featured Pope Francis. His noteworthy acts since 2013, coupled with some changes in church practice, have certainly advanced the conversation on LGBT issues in the church. But this progress may not be enough and may not be happening fast enough, as Pat Pierrello noted in the National Catholic Reporter. While calling for a new sexual morality in the church, Pierello stated:
“There is no evidence, however, that the church has any recognition that times have changed. Even in the recent synod on the family and Pope Francis’ response to the synod, all the old categories are used and other than a few words about conscience nothing has changed. . .
“The Apostle Paul had no problem modifying the teachings of Jesus on divorce in the face of new circumstances. It is time for the church to develop a more thoughtful morality based on the world we live in. . .It is way past time for the church to develop a new sexual morality that takes into account the lives of real people who are trying to live the Gospel day to day.”
What bothers me about the conversation on Nones, a demographic to which many of my friends and colleagues belong, is how little seriousness and agency is afforded to these religiously unaffiliated, but often very virtuous people.
Most older Catholics, and many younger ones as well, retain a “theology of return” when it comes to Nones. The primary purpose of engaging them is to draw them back into being practicing Catholics. Where parishes can at least acknowledge the role anti-LGBT teachings have had, this might mean an “All Are Welcome” sign or a rainbow flag.
These are positive steps, but they will not be sufficient for young adults in their 20s and 30s (and now 40s). Homosexuality is no longer a moral question for myself and my peers; it is a given reality to be celebrated. Ideas about sexuality are advancing and expanding quickly. New questions are what capture the minds of younger generations who are concerned about transgender and intersex people, asexuality, recovering bisexuality, etc. And unlike past generations, perhaps, young adults today are not waiting around for the church to catch up.
A colleague in ministry once pointed out that formation for ministry in the church today is largely unaffected by the reality that huge swaths of Catholics in the U.S. and some other contexts have left, are leaving, or are being excluded (and the corollary that so few ministers are linguistically and culturally incompetent for Hispanic ministry). Ministers in the church are trained as if everything is going along just fine, admitting perhaps that a few curveballs on gender and sexuality may arise.
The best question for the church to be asking is not how to get young people to return or what we can do to keep people “churched.” The best question we can ask, and which I pose to you, is what our church should be learning from these Nones? And how can we change based on what they, inspired by the holy Spirit, have taught us and our church?
So while the votes are being counted today, what do you think about these questions? Are changes under Pope Francis happening quickly enough to stop the outflow of young Catholics? Are these changes substantive enough to make younger Catholics take a second look? And if no to one or both of these questions, then where does the church go from here on LGBT issues?
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 8, 2016