Catholicism is under siege. What concerns me most is that the assault is not by the forces of radical or extremist religious groups, but by the effects of our secular society on my contemporaries, the millennial generation in America.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Study, the “nones,” or those American adults professing no faith affiliation, constitute 23 percent of the population. The growth of the “nones” has put them ahead of the number of professed (if not practicing) Catholics in America, which constitutes 21 percent. Pew’s previous study, in 2008, put the “nones” at 16 percent of the adult population and Catholics at 24 percent. The most troubling figures of these surveys show that, among younger millennials (birth years 1990-1996, ages 21-27), just 56 percent call themselves Christians, even though 80 percent were raised in religious homes.
Most researchers and demographers define millennials as those born from 1980 to the mid-1990s. This generation has also been called the “echo boomers,” in reference to their being the children of boomers.
As mid-generation millennials, born in the 1980s, my wife and I are building a family of our own. Our son Daniel was born in 2014, and we welcomed a healthy daughter on Father’s Day, June 18. Having spent the time and effort over a number of years developing and deepening our own Catholic spirituality, it is important to us to have godparents for her who are part of our faith community of practicing Catholics. Despite the fact that my wife has two sisters and I have two brothers and a sister, we struggled to find godparents who fit the bill.
All of our siblings left the faith long ago. We extended the search for godparents to our college friends, my law school classmates and people in our hometown, and still we have struggled. This led us to a greater conversation about what it means to be millennial and a practicing Catholic in America. Where has our family gone? Where have our friends gone? Why have they left the Church we were all raised in together? What could bring them back?
I believe that the culprits laying siege to Catholic millennials are modern spiritualism and a simplistic, fundamentalist view of Christianity.
To use a phrase from Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, I believe that the catechesis of the 1980s and 1990s in America was “beige Catholicism.” It was storybook simplistic, unassuming and wholly inoffensive. It was Catholicism, but often missed the vibrancy, beauty and earth-shaking implications of the faith.
As a result of the beige Catholicism we millennials were taught, many of us have not been exposed to the rich intellectualism of our tradition. It was only as an adult that I was exposed to some of the works of the foundational Christian authors and thinkers, like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or St. Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle. It was many years after being confirmed that I heard of G.K. Chesterton or Thomas Merton, or understood the Christian themes in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.
It was also only as an adult that I recognized that Catholicism does not require us to abandon our critical thinking skills or ignore modern scientific developments. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Jesus Christ and his Church are the lens through which the intelligible world is given meaning, the prism through which the natural world makes sense. Our ability to examine critically the world around us, what we know, and what we do not, is the foundation of our faith.
Moreover, while millennials of our secular society are outgoing in their support of a political candidate or a secular social cause, they shy away from public displays or acknowledgements of faith or connection to a faith-based community. They believe that equality and respect for other worldviews require a public indifference or denial of belonging to the Catholic Church.
We finally found godparents for our daughter, even with the hope that the important role that they are expected to play in her membership in our faith community will bring them, as godparents, into a deeper relationship with Christ. I will continue my (sometimes feeble) attempts to live my own faith in my communities, at home, in my law practice and among my friends and neighbors. I will also heartily pray and hope that the grace of God finds the nones among us and sets them on the path of reconciliation with Christ’s holy Church, which is calling to them: “Come home, millennials.” pray and hope that the grace of God finds the nones among us and sets them on the path of reconciliation with Christ’s holy Church, which is calling to them: “Come home, millennials.”