"Big Four" Highlights


Religious ‘Nones’

How to connect millennials to the Church

By Jason Godin

Close attention has been paid to one portion of the recent Pew Research report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which estimated that the share of adults in the United States “who do not identify with any organized religion” – called religious “nones” – grew from 16.1% to 22.8% between 2007 and 2014 (p. 3). In my article last week, I concluded that low generational replacement levels (i.e., significantly more young Catholics leaving the Church than joining) as well as a waning Catholic identity among young immigrants were two reasons why just 16% of U.S. millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 1996 – identify with the Catholic faith.

The Pew report has rightly raised awareness of the anemic Catholic identity among young adults. But concern about quantity alone is just part of the picture. A fuller portrait of millennial religious identity also requires asking about quality; for example, what specific reasons did the youngest survey respondents provide for their lack of religious affiliation? Such a question would tell more than any numbers on a chart. It affords an authentic encounter with what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Reading the end of the report’s introductory overview and its third chapter shows that the nation’s rising cohort of young “nones” in 2014 breaks down roughly into thirds, with the largest portion (39%) identifying their faith as “nothing in particular” and describing religion as “unimportant in their lives” (p. 14). Age distribution and generational retention rates led the report to claim that millennials as a generation are “becoming less religiously affiliated as they age.” In fact, 34% of the unaffiliated who identify as “nothing in particular” and view religion as “unimportant” were in the 18-29 age range, exactly double the 17% of the same age cohort identifying as Catholic; and 67% of millennials raised as unaffiliated stay that way into adulthood (p. 50 and 41).

One could say, with the benefit of a decade of historical hindsight, Pope Benedict had already discovered the ground for this empty faith. In April 2005, right before his election to the papacy, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned in his homily to the College of Cardinals how humanity was “building a dictatorship of relativism” that “does not recognize anything as definitive” and “whose ultimate good consists solely of one’s ego and desires.” It was a non-belief system with attitudes adrift and measured by “trends of fashion” and “the latest novelty.” When put into practice, the dictatorship of relativism proposed that nothing really mattered, not community nor country, unless it touched upon the solitary self.

Ironically, solitude doesn’t define millennials. It stands in sharp contrast, in fact, to how they see themselves and what they value. Today’s youngest adults move into places and professions looking to have an immediate influence. They leap at opportunities to travel, and place priority on using their talents to help those in need. They find joy in time spent together.

The millennials’ desire to connect with others and serve the larger community may be a means of drawing them to the Church, since Catholicism involves gathering as a faith community and exercising charity toward your neighbor. Indeed, right now is the time for what millennials might call a “teachable moment.” Catholicism can provide them with the community they seek and the connections they strive to make – only these connections run deeper than the latest Facebook post or tweet to touch something both timely and timeless. Today, we need to show millennials that the Catholic faith – with its earthly worldwide presence and heavenly community of saints – offers them the largest social media platform imaginable. But first, we must lead them to reject relativism and to embrace something bigger than their selves, as we introduce them to the adventure of Catholicism.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.