One of the most urgent issues in social science research and among catholic institutions stems from the fact that people are leaving the church and disaffiliating from religion. It’s a serious concern that Fr. James Heft, S.M., discussed during a Marianist lecture at the Mystical Rose Oratory.
Themed, “Where Have All Young People Gone?,” Fr. Heft outlined complex solutions to a complicated question. Addressing the crowd, he shared his anecdotal stories, one of which occurred during a wedding rehearsal dinner.
“I asked a young woman named Monica about her religion, to which she answered, ‘Religion was forced down my throat,’” Fr. Heft recounts. “Whoa! I told her now that you can feed yourself, what do you think? It started five years of correspondence.”
Such candid conversations need to start happening across that nation if we want to find the reasons for disaffiliation.
A 2018 study by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (IACS) at the University of Southern California found that the Catholic population has been declining in the U.S., and Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss of people than any other religious tradition. The study also found that the majority of millennials raised Catholic typically now report that they are unaffiliated and there has been a significant drop in weekly Sunday attendance.
In a more recent Pew Research Study released in December 2021, those surveyed said they no longer go to church, but they still believe in God and pray. The report also revealed that those in the 18-29 age range represented the fastest decline in religious affiliation, with 36 percent rejecting any type of affiliation with a religious denomination.
“Our interdisciplinary study, ‘Empty Chairs,’ published in 2021 by Oxford University Press, offers a more detailed—I think informative—and contextualized description of disaffiliation than the Pew study, which has its limitations,” Heft asserts. “The Pew provides a good overview of a specific demographic, mainly white, affluent and well educated.”
In contrast, Heft described the sample group for “Empty Chairs” as more inclusive and representative of a more diverse cohort among the unaffiliated. The study included immigrants whose approach to religion is different than white young adults. College non-graduates, high-school graduates, non-affiliated theists, the economically disenfranchised and an older generation—that had not affiliated with any religion for decades—also participated.
“The study, however, provided some good news,” Heft said. “We document how religious parents provide warmth, appropriate religious structures and space for appropriate autonomy.”
The research also documents how fostering religious religious development in youth protects against delinquency, violence, depression and anxiety. In short, the healthy practice of religion cultivates psychological and physical well being, as well as civic involvement.
“Religious education and institutions continue to make a positive impact,” Heft asserted. “The question is: Is it secularization, the general movement in the culture, that has marginalized and privatized religion, and contributed profoundly to the situation we’re in?”
Heft admitted that disaffiliation is serious and alarming, but we shouldn’t become discouraged; there is hope. As the late religious scholar Huston Smith liked to say, “Religion gives traction to spirituality.”
“There are a lot of people suffering and hurting, and there’s nothing like an easy answer to make them more distant from faith,” Heft said. “We need to be careful in wanting to promote the faith in a deep way but not to promote it superficially. Afterall, Jesus said, ‘My God, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”