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Mar 21, 2018

3 Reasons Why Young People Don’t Stay Catholic

Jason Evert

You have probably seen the polls that say young people are leaving the Church. According to the data, it is not that they are hostile to all things spiritual, but that they have become indifferent to organized religion. They are “into” spirituality without structure—or, one could say, a soul without its body.

3 Reasons Why Young People Don't Stay CatholicWhy is this happening? Was St. Augustine wrong about human nature and our “God holes” that need to be filled? What if the youth of recent years have been asking for honest, direct answers more intensely now than ever before, but we are not addressing their questions in a language they can understand?

As I see it, there are three root causes of young people’s increasing indifference to the Faith.

1. Defective Pedagogy for Young People

Many young people head off to college only having been taught what they are not  supposed to do. They might think, “OK, I know I shouldn’t look at pornography, have premarital sex, live with my girlfriend, or have an abortion. Great. But what should I do?”

When it comes to finding and receiving love, discerning their vocation, and growing in virtue, many youth feel unequipped. In part, this is because the Church’s teachings on difficult matters (such as sexual ethics) are often presented from the “outside-in.” For example, the Ten Commandments are presented, and they may even be applied to real life. For many, though, both young and old alike, this approach can seem more of an imposition rather than a revelation. Such a methodology may correctly present the truth of our Catholic Faith without conveying its inherent goodness or beauty.

A key reason this approach falls short is that today’s young people have been fed so many lies by our modern culture. They have had to expend a great deal of energy to sort fact from fiction, “reality” TV from real life. When they are presented with the truth, they instinctively question it. Some seem to have a visceral reaction to the very concept of objective truth.

Meanwhile, they are immersed in a culture that has deprived them of the opportunity to experience authentic beauty. Everything is exposed, but nothing is revealed. If we are going to help today’s young people embrace the truth of the Catholic Faith, we must begin by revealing its beauty to them, showing them the intrinsic harmony of its teachings. It is easy to argue with “truth,” but it is impossible to resist beauty.

If the Church is the bride of Christ, then she does not need to be defended. She needs to be unveiled, so her beauty can speak for itself. Song of Songs 4:9 foretells the love that Christ has for his Church in the bridegroom’s declaration, “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride.” If we could only see what Christ sees in the Church, our hearts would fall in love as well. What is keeping us from doing that?

2. Impure Hearts

Christ’s purity fills the Church and makes it beautiful. In his Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5–7), Christ promised that the pure in heart will see God. He was not speaking merely about seeing God in the next life, but having the capacity to recognize him now.

Those who lack true purity of heart, then, will have difficulty understanding—or even recognizing—the things of God. Given that today’s young people are relentlessly bombarded with images of impurity on TV, the Internet, and in social media, it is no surprise that they find it increasingly difficult to understand spiritual matters.

Young people who live unchaste lives open a chasm between their will and the will of God. They lose the ability to see spiritually with eyes unclouded by sin. This is why St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote, “When a raven finds a dead body, its first act is to pluck out the eyes; and the first injury that [impurity] inflicts on the  soul is to take away the light of the things of God.”

God created us as rational creatures. When we choose to live an immoral lifestyle while calling ourselves Christians, we have to grapple with the tension between how we are living and what we believe. If our behavior does not match our beliefs, ultimately one of them will have to go—and it is always easier to drop our faith than our sins.

We search for moral loopholes, such as, “Where in the Bible does it say [insert sin] is wrong?” When no loopholes are left, we search for dubious reasons to leave our faith behind, things like: “The Catholic Church has a medieval view of sex,” or “I don’t believe in organized religion,” or “The Bible was written thousands of years ago. How do we know it is reliable?” or, “I can’t obey the Church because its leaders are hypocrites.” We look for something to divert us, something to keep us from studying and confronting the truth. We may claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” But St. Augustine’s words are a challenge to all of us: “If you believe what you like in the gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Perhaps the most common objection to the Faith, however, is that Christians often fail to live up to the name.

3. Lack of Saints

A teenage girl once approached me in tears after a chastity talk I gave at her high school. She said that her father always harps on her to wear a purity ring and save sex for marriage. But she added, “I found his porn collection when I was eight years old, and I know he still has it all. I resent him so much.” In her eyes, all moral and spiritual authority had been stripped from him. How could he lead his own household if he could not master his own desires?

Pope Paul VI once remarked“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” When teachers fail to be witnesses, their message will fall on deaf ears.

One of the many blessings of living in our era is that we were blessed with a pope who had a pure heart and a brilliant pedagogy—St. John Paul II.

On September 16, 1987, in an address to bishops of the United States, John Paul said:

We must also constantly recall that the teaching of Christ’s church—like Christ himself—is a “sign of contradiction.” It has never been easy to accept the Gospel teaching in its entirety, and it never will be. The Church is committed, both in faith and morals, to make her teaching as clear and understandable as possible, presenting it in all the attractiveness of divine truth.

One of the prelates in attendance, Bishop John Michael D’Arcy, was so inspired by a phrase in the Holy Father’s presentation that he brought it up later while talking to the pope:

What struck me then and stayed with me, which I presented to the pope later … was the term: attractiveness. It was only one word. How do we make [the Faith] attractive, I asked him. Then he gave me that response that is forever written in my heart. He got very serious, like a philosopher, and said, “It is necessary to understand the soul of the woman. All these things, which are meant to liberate the woman: premarital sex, contraception, and abortion, have they liberated her or have they enslaved her?”

It is necessary to understand the soul of the woman. Isn’t this what every woman desires and what every man strives to accomplish? In one packed sentence, St. John Paul II sums up not only the intrinsic drama of human love, but also the solution to some of the most difficult questions of sexual ethics.

If we are to help young people today to incarnate their faith and understand that authentic spirituality and “organized” religion are not diametrically opposed, we would do well to follow the lead of St. John Paul II. He never compromised the truth of the Faith, but revealed its beauty in his teachings and through his pure heart and his life of sanctity.

This article was first published in Ascension’s 2015 Faith Formation Catalog. 

Jason Evert is the best-selling author of a dozen books, including Theology of His/Her Body and How to Find Your Soulmate Without Losing Your Soul. He also co-authored YOU: Life, Love, and the Theology of the Body with his wife, Crystalina, and Brian Butler. Jason earned a master’s degree in theology, as well as undergraduate degrees in counseling and theology, from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He writes for

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  • Yes! Since converting to Catholicism, I have been threatening to write a book on the beauty of the faith. It is so beautiful, but seemingly few realize it’s beauty. Most see it as boring, confining and too structured when in fact it is incredibly lovely and beautiful.

  • This is a fantastic article Jason. Thank you for writing. I think that lack of modern saints is such a bigger one in the lives of many young Catholics!

  • I have so much to say. I struggle with the lack of engagement of young people in the Church, starting from toddlerhood on up though high school and even college, although I think the Paulist Fathers do an amazing job at the college level. I know that many prefer the Church’s stance of all children in mass, with no children’s church, nursery or Sunday School, and often mediocre youth group programs for older kids. I think that the Church feels it is supportive of families, but that is not my experience. I understand the teaching of kids in mass, but feel that it creates distance. Older men and women are often irritated by families with children who are squirming and just being kids in church, and will say unkind things and give unpleasant looks. My kids needed more than just watching me pray – they needed engagement for their own faith walk. My kids are bigger now, so they can sit attentively but it is so sad to me. I see it happening to young families around me, and I feel their heartache at feeling unwelcome at church every single week. I have had several families tell me that they have stopped going for that reason, especially if they have kids who are precocious and difficult to keep quiet during mass. We alternate attending a Protestant church, where my children feel welcomed and nurtured and so do I. They are engaged by the well trained youth pastors and youth staff, the thoughtful programming, the fun and creative activities, and the intentional engagement of young people in that church community. They are immediately met by caring adults who want to nurture their relationship with Christ. There is room for them to be kids, to ask questions about God, to play and to be nurtured. It gives me a break as a parent to focus on worship so that I can be filled up spiritually, which then in turn I can share with my children. It is respectful, genuine and intentional. That is amazing. And the programming for the entire family – for women, for men and for married couples is amazing: Bible study, small groups, programming specifically for parents, blended families, married couples and singles. There are people to talk to about our struggles in our marriage, with parenting, with walking with Christ. I struggle with staying Catholic and raising my children in the Church. I think Catholic churches miss the boat with building deep relationships with others in the community. There is nowhere to be broken, to be struggling, to be seen and loved as you are. That is what small groups, bible studies and Sunday School begin to cultivate. I see other families like ours leaving in for Protestant churches where they feel welcomed, educated, included and nurtured from the moment they walk in the door. Yes, our culture feeds our children lies, but the Church falls so short of building relationship with our youth and providing a community that walks alongside them as they learn about their faith and how to walk in faith through a fallen world. And youth do not leave the church because they have impure hearts. We ALL have impure hearts- that is why Jesus came for us. We are all broken and in need of Christ’s healing mercy EVERY DAY. Youth are drawn to environments that minister to their broken pieces because we all need that. And their parents NEED THE SAME NURTURING and community. And the lack of community spans the generations. My in-laws are Catholic and have lived in the same little town for the entire lives, and attended the same Catholic Church for there ENTIRE lives. My mother-in-law was just diagnosed with multiple devastating illnesses and they have abruptly moved to be near all of their kids for support. Has anyone at the Catholic Church noticed they are gone? No. Is anyone calling to see where they have been, and to offer support and prayer? No. They have called my father-in-law to see when they can schedule him on the Lecter schedule because they need someone to read at mass. He has shared briefly their situation. No calls – in fact, they have only called again to ask when he will be a Lecter. It breaks my heart. Who misses them? Who notices their pain? No one. It is terribly sad. I see beauty in the Liturgy, and I love Pope Francis so much. But I see major areas where the Church could love its people so much more deeply. I pray for healing, for connection and community. Jesus came for us so that we can help each other.

    • I agree. While I know that it is not the church’s job to conform to secular world, the fact that Catholicism continuously tries to pit itself against the “secular world” (a term which in itself is part of the problem) and gives off this slightly pretentious vibe will never welcome anyone. Again that “secularism” is blameless but there is a reason that it has attracted more young people than the church. If I hadnt found such a suportive parish, I may have been one of those people as well.

      • Thank you for such a kind response, Clare. I am so glad you have a supportive parish. I have friends who just left their parish, and they were so involved. Lector, music ministry, social justice ministry, and altar serving. But they didn’t feel connected – they worked hard to try to connect. When they finally left, my friend said to me with such sadness, “No one even noticed.” In our world that lacks human connection for so many reasons, people yearn to be seen, known and loved. I pray that the Church understands the importance of meeting that need. Our world needs Jesus so much.

  • Personally I feel that the Roman Catholic Church has got stuck in a “time warp”, just as His church had, when Jesus came on the earth. The Temple/Sanhedrin had locked themselves in an exclusive power structure which deliberately excluded the populace and regarded them as the imbeciles, and look what Jesus said of them, “You brood of vipers!” Pope Francis is doing all he can to open it up, but even at a parish level, many of the priests seem themselves as mini “gods” and rule with a fairly heavy “iron fist”, having no PPC and a heavy control handon the finance committee, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely Yes, go back to the Gospels or now, better still, The Poem of the Man-God” by Maria Valtorta, and you will discover a truly vibrant, living faith focused around JESUS, not the Church. We are the church, and we have got to be Jesus to those around us. Just as Jesus said, “If you have seen me then you have seen the Father”: so we must be able to “absorb” Him into our lives so that we can say, “If you have seen me then you have seen Jesus”! However this “absorbing” comes at a very heavy cost such as switching the television off and getting down to all the forms of “communicating” with Him: prayer; reading the Bible; fasting; Rosary; confession; adoration, etc. Yes, and all of this must be done with the heart not the head, “Be as a little child/Be born again” challenges us to have the blind faith of a little child and just launch ourselves into Our Lord and Saviour’s arms; yes via His beloved Mother if necessary. “Deny you self, pick up your cross and follow Me”!!!!!

  • “It is necessary to understand the soul of the woman.”
    As a woman myself, I can’t tell you how much that empowered me, especially that coming from one of the holiest figures imaginable. I might use that as a senior quote someday or at least have it painted on the wall of my dream house.

  • Great article, man. I agree with all the points. Except, I would also add “loss of catholic tradition” to the list. I’m a young man and I thank God because one of the things that stopped my lukewarm Catholic existence was learning about all the cool stuff in Catholicism like the Latin rite and Eastern rite masses. Also, not enough people people talk about hell either in society and the church, which leaves young Catholics with few reservations to leave. For me it is chilling to think about the fact that for such a long time I lived in mortal sin and was definitely risking my eternal salvation. Many of my Catholic friends still do so I just pray to God that they can change their ways.

  • I enjoyed this but I still think there needs to be clear distinction on how to become a non hipocrit. How do we explain to others that temptation is a human condition and all of the entire man cannot be thrown away becuase of his one sin? The sin needs to be thrown away. It gets very complicated when explaining to anyone how the Catholic system of forgivness and sinning nomore works. Of course we may sin again. What is the proper teaching on how the whole cycle works? I think that the CYCLE of of sin, correction, redemption and sinning again needs to be taught from the pulpit. Many of my walk away Catholic peers said the rules were too hard – no – it wasnt the rule but the guilt was too hard. Guilt should be taught as an indicator of sin and not something to run from when it gets out of control. We purely want to live in the light but we personally beat ourselves up especially when we are filled with integrity, we are really good human children of God, but I still say the explanations from the pulpit need to be easily understood and should not be about stories of life experiences and sports stories but teaching the rules and why they are so essential. Saints are not promoted with their life examples either. Children should be encouraged to study these scolars who overcame obstacles through faith. All I hear is crickets chirping and no teaching. We all NEED these teachings every day/week and the subject should fall in line with the readings. We can only hope that children will be there and attentive on the day their problem is discussed and a solution is taught to them from the pulpit. I taught my children at home but many times they are met with a completely different faith version at the Holy Mass and they were frankly confused.
    I wanted so much better, I met with the clergy who insited on teaching on a high educated elevated level which drifted far above the childrens attention.
    How do we send a message to an untouchable unteachable clergy leadership?

  • How about…. The Church covering up sexual abuse scandals (and don’t tell me it’s not real or any crap like that, because I can prove it, and how it’s still going on today).

    That might be one reason, not the three crap, vague reasons this article listed.

  • “It is necessary to understand the soul of the woman. All these things, which are meant to liberate the woman: premarital sex, contraception, and abortion, have they liberated her or have they enslaved her?”

    I’m having an issue with this statement. Can someone explain to me what this means? What is the ‘Soul of the Woman’?

  • I think your way off.. it’s really tough for a guy to become a pedophile if he isn’t inclined that way. And the church demands it of all the upper level clergy to at least hold something over their head to keep them in line and not break doctrine. Why else has the church not allowed women to become high clergy? They would destroy all those old fags clinging on to power. And young people can see that horrible side and want no part

  • I like your article. Not teaching properly and not teaching the true essense, is the problem. Catholic teachings are good, no one with sane mind can deny that truth. But trying to explain the length and breadth of why the one line teachings matter in the grander scheme of things, is important. I would never discourage abortion unless I understood how unsafe (premarital or post) sex leads to multiple problems and end up creating an avalanche of newer problems. But not everyone can think through clearly. Young kids dont think in depth, at all. How do you convince a child whose mind is yet to experience the real world? You cant silence a mind, it is God’s creation. It was given freedom to think by God Himself. Unless we see better examples – happily married people, in reality, in practicality, it is beyond possible to convince anyone anything. Examples of practical people??Saints are convincing but not everyone wants to leave everything and serve God like priests, bishops, deacons, nuns etc. do. Where are better examples of good people? Catholics in particular? The people who can propagate much better teachings to their progeny and spread their goodness are usually cloistered inside churches & remain celibate. Why dont these good people get married and spread the love of God to the next generation kids? Except priests, it is hard to find Catholic men who might be good at work or practicality. Mostly they either sing or praise God and leave the real wordly work at back burner. So it gets very confusing. Where are good examples of working Catholics that aren’t into priesthood or into Celibacy?
    If there are, please share. We would like to learn how they are changing the world not by leaving the real world problems. Is Sainthood/ religious life of priests/nuns, the only way to lead a better Catholic life? Why we common people, were designed at all then? It gets so confusing. Please share some examples of how non-Saint Catholics have changed the world?

  • A little late to the party I apologize but my .02 as a lapsed black Catholic female….
    Reasons for leaving? Allow me….
    How bout the Church’s patriarchal misogyny towards women. The Apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, and the “rock” Peter just to name three examples. Their statements regarding females express an almost downright out disdain if not hatred of women. Yet the Church venerates these sexist assholes. Sorry if it offends(not sorry) But If I had a time machine, I’d take a trip and say it to their holy faces what I think of their whole women subordinate to men spiel. Neither them or you (sorry) as men speak for me as a woman. And that is half the problem in itself. For a while I’ve found it a tad grating that a red robed cabal of patriarchal dead from the neck down old white men in Rome who insist on staying stuck in the Middle Ages think that somehow God gave them the authority to tell me what to do with my body. As per Jay and Silent Bob “Women’s body’ is her own f******* business.” And FYI, birth control allowed us women to take control of our lives such determining for ourselves how many children, and when or even if we want to have children at all. Not all of us think that wife, mother, or nun are the be all end all. More power to those that do.
    The Church’s subtle racism towards blacks even those within their own flock. Example their lack of condemnation of violence perpetuated towards people of color. When the tragic hate motivated shooting at the church in South Carolina and shootings of unarmed Black people occurred, members of other faiths and even no faith stood and mourned, and issued public condemnations. The Church did what they usually do….nothing.
    And speaking of doing worse than nothing, yeah we’re going there the rampant sexual abuse that the Church stood by and let happen and even covered up. And now its out there, no real comfort or apology is being offered to the people who are hurt and angered by what was done to either them, their loved ones and/or friends. And understandably they want to no longer be a part of the institution that gives more shelter and protection to those who committed these horrible things against them.
    Yet we should stay? Please tell me why….

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