An outlier or misunderstanding: What young Americans really think of the faith

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By Father Jean Joseph Brice

In the last few years, anyone who has been paying attention to the religious trends has heard one unending hymn: the church has no grandchildren. Countless surveys show that more than 40 percent of young Americans identify themselves as “nones.” Surveys show that as more than 70 percent of confirmation students stop going to church within five years of their confirmation, most don’t get married in the church and they believe that faith and religion don’t coalesce. They also believe that the Bible is a fictional book. However, my work, exposure, experience and observance of young people teach me what is reported in surveys doesn’t reflect their reception of a well-articulated faith.

I come to understand that they don’t reject God and religion; they reject people who make a poor job preaching God and religion. For example, they react strongly against anyone bashing people with homosexual tendencies, but when it is explained to them who the human person is and how he is to act as a result, they understand why acting on such tendencies is incompatible with their humanity. They hate being told how to dress, but they are at the edge of their seats when the power of interior beauty is explained to them. They are very protective of the idea of freedom as license, but they are open to freedom for excellence. They bark at anyone denigrating the human person, but they understand that sin corrodes the soul.

The lesson for us here is this: if we concentrate our efforts in explaining our humanism — made in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, called to greatness, made to enjoy the beatific vision — if we take the time to explain how the dignity of the human person as both an endowment and an achievement that can be diminished if we don’t seek the truth, obey our conscience, resist sin, practice virtue and repent when we fall, these young people will not reject this. Every time someone ventures to explain it well to them, they respond so positively.

Secularism, the biggest challenge of our time, cannot withstand the beauty of Catholicism. If we are not listened to, if many bark at us, it is probably due to our own lack of determination to present this in a clear, convincing, powerful, and attractive light.

Furthermore, we are told that young people are leaving the church because of our moral laws. What I see is that when young people are taught the beauty of who Christ is and who they are — being made to become Christ-like, none objects to the church’s moral laws. This works in the domain of game playing. If a coach wants to teach a child how to play soccer, he/she instinctively knows that it is unwise and imprudent to start with the rules. Rather, he gets on the field and starts a soccer game. Through gestures, kicking, shooting, running, dribbling and tackling, he gets a feel for the beauty of the game. As the child begins falling in love with the sport, the coach starts teaching him about offside, throw-ins, direct and indirect free kicks, etc. When the rules are presented after experiencing the beauty of the game, the child doesn’t bark at them. Why? Because he comes to understand that they are all part of the beauty of playing soccer.

Similarly, only poor strategies on our part can result in young people leaving the church. Otherwise, they want what we have. They want truth; we have it. They have questions; we have the answers, not easy, cheap, false and empty answers. They want to welcome the strangers, serve the poor, stand up for the marginalized. That’s what we do. They want a true foundation whose roots transcend human power. They want a place where they feel understood, listened to, accepted, loved, cherished and valued. That’s what the church is about. When they understand this, how can they ever leave?

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.