We have an opening

Wednesday, July 03, 2019 - Updated: 12:42 pm

By David Mills

Things are grim, kind of like the Pirates’ season before the winning streak. Maybe not quite Baltimore Orioles grim, 7,000 games out of first-place grim. But bad.

I mean the decline in the number of practicing Catholics in the United States. And especially the decline in the number of young Catholics who still go to Mass.

Speaking to the bishops’ meeting a couple of weeks ago, Bishop Robert Barron pointed out that half of Catholics under 30 have left the church. He serves as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and runs the Word on Fire apostolate. He thinks a lot about how to reach people, which means thinking about why they need to be reached.

Most just lost interest, he said. They became “nones,” the term for people who have no religious faith and don’t care to have one. Others became evangelical or mainline Protestants. Most leave the church before they’re 23.

Every year after Easter, Catholic publications sprout with cheerful articles about all the people who entered the church at the Easter Vigil. Bishop Barron said that for every two who enter the church, 13 people leave.

The scandals have had an influence, he explained in a National Catholic Register article summarizing his talk. But it’s a not a big reason.

It may be a big reason for older people. (This is me, not Bishop Barron.) But the loss of faith among young people seems to come from something deeper, more basic. They’re not committed enough to the Catholic Church to get really angry at it.

Older people get angry at the church the way they might be angry at an unfaithful spouse. They feel tricked and betrayed. Young people seem to be angry, if they are, more like the way they might be annoyed at their third-grade gym teacher.

So why do younger people leave the church? Bishop Barron says the main reason is simple: study after study show they leave mostly because they don’t believe it. They reject classical Christian teaching.

They often think that science disproves religion. I would have thought that was the stalest idea imaginable, straight from the “Dumb Atheist Book of Cliches.” But apparently a lot of young people believe it.

There are other reasons. They include “the general secularism and moral relativism of the culture, the difficulty many young people have with the church’s sexual teachings, and the supposed correlation between religion and violence.”

But things are Pirates grim, not Orioles grim. We have a chance. Among the unreligious, Bishop Barron wrote, “there are relatively few fierce atheists or determined opponents of religion. Most are indifferent to faith and have drifted rather than stormed away from the church.” As he put it when he spoke to the bishops, “We’re not up against a fierce opponent at every turn. Most are ambivalent to religion rather than hostile to it.”

He finds a reason for hope in “the massive presence of young people on social media platforms that trade in religious topics.” He has seen this himself in his evangelistic work. It’s “something to build on,” he said.

The bishop gave the example of the influence of secular thinker Jordan Peterson. He pointed to “the rather extraordinary fact that a mild-mannered, soft-spoken psychology professor, speaking of serious matters in a sober way, could attract tens of thousands to arenas and millions to his social media sites.”

A lot of young people want answers to the Big Questions. Unreligion doesn’t help. Science doesn’t help. They want good answers. Which the church has in abundance. We have an opening.

As it happens, I have just written a series of three articles on the same subject. The first deals with “science.” The second gives three reasons that kids leave the church, and the third offers some ideas of what to do when your kids do that. Here’s a link to the first, which has links to the other two: www.tinyurl.com/kidsleavingchurch.

Speaking of people leaving the church: In my previous Pittsburgh Catholic column I wrote about Stephen Bullivant’s new book, “Mass Exodus.” It studies Catholics who left the church in the last 50 years. It turns out he’s one of the authors of another new book on the subject. This one’s a more popular book based on talking with lapsed Catholics. It’s titled “Why Catholics Leave, What They Miss, and How They Might Return,” published by Paulist Press.

Mills is writing a book on death and dying for Sophia Institute Press. The Register article is at http://www.ncregister.com/blog/robert-barron/the-usccb-meeting-jordan-peterson-and-the-nones.

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