Why Young Catholics Leave and What Parents Can Do To Prevent It

Studies of young dropouts suggest ways parents can draw their kids to God.

By Bert Ghezzi

An estimated 42 percent of all Catholics leave the church at some time during their lives.  At present more than 50 percent of those dropping out are young Catholics, 25 years of age or younger. Not very encouraging statistics, especially for parents.

However, the same sociologists who gave us the numbers have also been able to pin down the main reasons why kids leave the Church. Grappling with these factors may suggest some strategies parents could use to keep their own children close to Christ and the Church.

In “Converts, Dropouts, Returnees,” (1981) Dean R. Hoge classifies young Catholic dropouts into three main categories:

1) family-tension dropouts
2) weary dropouts
3) lifestyle dropouts

1.More than half of young dropouts are in the family-tension category. These young persons experience pressure or problems in their family, and at the first chance rebel against their parents and the Church. They usually drop out as soon as they leave home, or when parents relax the pressure.

Hoge says that this rebellion against parents takes two forms:

In one type of situation these young persons have received religious education and have attended Mass during childhood and early adolescence yet for various reasons have never internalized or “owned” their faith. They do not identify with the faith or with the Catholic Church. As they grow older, they feel no motivation to go to church, and as soon as family pressure is off, they drop out.

The other form comprises a general rebellion by the youth against their families and all their families stand for. This situation is laden with emotion; when one talks with the youth one hears long histories of bad feelings, most of which are unrelated to church-going or religion. The youths may charge the church with faults and weaknesses, but these charges are not explanations for their behavior; they are rationalizations.

2.Weary or “bored” dropouts are persons who no longer have any motivation for attending church, and a large number of young Catholics who leave fit this description. They usually give some recent external event as a reason for their leaving, such as a job change or a conflict with their pastor, but the deeper reason is internal.

Hoge says of weary dropouts: “An inner faith and spiritual life is lacking, hence
motivation is weak.”

3.Another large group of young Catholics leave the Church because their lifestyle conflicts with Church teaching.

Usually their difficulties stem from moral problems in the area of sex, such as masturbation, homosexual activity, premarital sex, or cohabitation. Faced with the option of changing their behavior or leaving the Church, they drop out. Even if these young Catholics have internalized their faith — and it can be safely assumed that most have not — their religious commitment is no match for their sexual activity or relationships.

What lessons can parents learn from these sociological studies? There are significant clues that could lead to strategies for keeping our kids Catholic.

Lesson 1: Resolve Family Problems. Fifty-two percent of young Catholics drop out not because they have problems with the Church, but because they are rebelling against their parents. Church attendance becomes a weapon in family warfare, a way for a young person to set himself against his mom and dad.

Parents should put emphasis on making family relationships positive for every member. Good communication is essential, as is the determination to deal with problems as they arise, so that they don't hang around and reproduce, hatching a whole brood of new problems.

Good family life does not guarantee that a child will not leave the Church. However, eliminating as much family tension as possible removes circumstances that prompt kids to drop out.

Lesson 2: Help Young Catholics Develop a Personal Relationship with God. Young Catholic dropouts fall into different categories, but their underlying condition is the same. They have not “internalized” their faith, they are limited to “externals,” they do not “own” their Catholic religion, they don’t “identify” with the Catholic church, they have no “intrinsic motivation,” “inner faith,” or “spiritual life.”

The common denominator here is that young dropouts do not know God personally. And not knowing him, they cannot love him.

Meeting God affects people — it motivates them. It gives their life meaning; it even persuades them to behave morally.

So what can we do to help our kids come to know God? The following could be planks in our strategy:

• Parents must come to know and love God above all. Prayer, Scripture study, talking with priests and lay leaders, involvement in renewal movements — all are avenues we should pursue.

• We should make God present in our homes through family prayer and by speaking to our children about our relationship with him.

• We should teach what the Catholic Church teaches.

• Parents should link their kids up with young Catholic adults, just a little older than they, who are serious about God and about their faith. Children often listen to mentors who are closer to them in age.

You get the idea. Do whatever you can to help the kids experience God personally.

Lesson 3: Pray. Sociological surveys and practical advice that we find summed up in articles like this may give us a false sense of control. Or more likely, they may give us a headache, overwhelming us with the difficulty of the job.

The reality is that we must do whatever we can, no matter how puny it may seem, and trust God to accomplish the goal of saving our children. So the best and most effective plank in our plan must be prayer.

Jesus promised repeatedly to grant any request we make in his name. In other words, when we pray according to his will, we can be sure our prayer will be answered. What could be more in line with his will than bringing our children to know, love, and serve God and to live with him forever?

So let’s keep on expecting God to keep our kids Catholic and Christian, or to bring them back to him, if they have dropped out.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author from the book Keeping Your Kids Catholic by Bert Ghezzi, a popular writer and speaker. His website is www.bertghezzi.com.