"Emerging adult," we learn, is "a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood," here meaning people of ages 18 to 23. So writes reviewer Thomas Baker, the publisher of Commonweal, the top (lay-led) Catholic magazine, which has much at stake among "emergents."
Baker reviews Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, by sociologist Christopher Smith and his first-rate University of Notre Dame-based team. Mention Notre Dame and you are also referring to people who have "much at stake" while observing this cohort. I mention the "much at stake" factor because similar analyses, e.g. of "Mainline Protestants," "Protestants," "Evangelicals," etc. trends are often provided by people who are neutral about or hostile to their studied young specimens.
Baker makes clear: the surveys, minutely observed from 2002 through 2008, have no good news, none, about "Young Catholic America" and what they spell out for the Catholic future in America. (Will Hispanic/Latino/Asian Catholics change the situation?) Baker rightly calls this a "discouraging book," in which "the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic."
We Martys hang out with the elders of these "Catholic Kids," dedicated, well-meaning parents who mourn their "Kids" departure from Mass and from affliliation. (We mourn with them.) Yes, Baker says, you hear about "pockets of enthusiastically 'orthodox' young adults out there somewhere," but, quoting his old mentor in market research, "the plural of the word 'anecdote' is not "data."
The Smith team has collected data from the same young people several times during the six years of their study. "Only 7 percent of these young adults" can be called "practicing Catholics," while 27 percent are totally "disengaged" and find church irrelevant. Between these extremes most live "with their Catholic identity as a more dormant . . . force."
The words of the interviewed, reproduced by Smith and company are "most depressing." Most were "out," and those who lingered voiced their "vague priorities" to become "a better person," too vague a goal to help provide a Catholic identity.
These trends are not new; ever since the Vatican Council 50 years ago, many claim that the Church failed to provide "authoritative instruction and direction." Grumpy conservatives fault the bishops for not doing a better job of selling the faith. Baker won't have it: The problem is the product itself, which the "emergents" reject.
No surprise: it's "disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching." Thus 61 percent of "even the 'practicing'" Catholics among them are unconvinced by Catholic teachings on premarital sex and birth control.
Does anything work to retain young Catholics? Catholics-married-to-Catholics help the cause of generating at least marginal faithfulness, and Catholic schooling has helped a bit. But "this is a difficult book. . . [in part] because of the sense of helplessness it may generate."
"Where we go from here?" Smith asks. He sees no hope in attempts to "re-do" or "un-do" the 60s. "Perhaps the only hope is Pope Francis's recent emphasis on making the 'kerygma' [basic message] of the faith a far higher priority than doctrinal and moral pronouncements." Even half of the most disaffected Catholic young people "claim they believe that Jesus was the Son of God, raised from the dead. It's a start, at least," maybe "the only message they might be able to hear."
We'll join them, Smith, Baker, the Pope, and the parents in hearing the message and observing the hearers.
Baker, Thomas. "Young Catholic America." Commonweal, October 9, 2014, Book Reviews.
Smith, Christian, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Karl Christofferson. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.