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Why Catholic Millennials are Leaving the Church

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Millennials, those born between 1981-2000, (there is some debate over the exact time frame) now ages 15 to 34, are less religious than their parents and grandparents. Why they are remains a subject of intense debate. Regardless of the reasons why, millennials are less likely to be a part of an organized religion than earlier generations. According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, nones, those who are not affiliated with any religion, continue to increase numerically. 55 million Americans are now a none.  Granted, this is still a small percentage of the total U.S. population, but 34-36% of millennials are a none, compared to just 17% of their parents and 11% of their grandparents.

While the media tends to focus on millennials leaving Evangelical sects and churches, the Catholic church also has a millennial problem. Kaya Oakes, a writer for Religion Dispatches and a one time atheist who returned to the Catholic church of her youth,  had this to say about the Catholic church and millennials:

A new survey from Catholics for Choice on the opinions of Catholic millennials as regards doctrinal issues might make the church’s traditionalists want to brace themselves. But its findings are also somewhat unsurprising to anyone who spends time around younger Catholics, whose political and social leanings mirror the open-minded stances of their increasingly non-religious peers.

Birth control and abortion, arguably the Catholic church’s most contentious issues, are not always perceived in a negative light by young Catholics. Among those polled, more than half say abortion should be legal in “almost all” or “most” cases, and 31 percent say it should be legal in “just a few” cases. Only 17 percent say it should be illegal. 78 percent say birth control should be included in insurance coverage, no matter where a woman works.

In spite of the widely mocked Catholic Vote video of young people “coming out” as believing that marriage is between a man and a woman, marriage equality is embraced by Catholic millennials. 69% “strongly” or “somewhat” support legal same-sex marriage.

In the wake of the firing of multiple Catholic school teachers who are openly gay or lesbian or married to a same-sex partner, and the ensuing grappling over Catholic teacher contracts that explicitly prevent teachers from being open about their sexuality, younger Catholics have chosen the side of the teachers. 71% say Catholic schools should not be able to fire teachers for being LGBTQ. On gender in the church, Catholic millennials follow similar thinking, with 75% supporting women having an equal role in the church.

Pope Francis is popular among young Catholics, with only two percent having a negative view of him. But the American church hierarchy is not looked on so kindly, and there is an increasing emphasis on a separation between politics and religion. A full 80 percent of respondents said they felt no need to follow the bishops’ advice when it comes time to vote, and 77 percent said Catholic politicians were under no obligation to follow the bishops either.

They are also opposed by a wide margin to bishops withholding communion to the divorced and remarried, those who support legal abortion, and those who support marriage equality.

What’s missing from this survey, however, is the question of church attendance. How much are these Catholics who disagree with and question church teaching are actually showing up? Christian Smith, the head of the National Study of Youth and Religion at Notre Dame, says the situation with Catholic millennials participating in church culture is “in fact, grim.” Only 16% of millennials self-identify as Catholic according to Pew. That 16% is the group the church is struggling to hold on to.

So if they are increasingly choosing the liberal side in the culture wars, are they really still Catholic?…

…What is clear, however, is that the more young Catholics start to embrace marriage equality, safe and legal abortion, access to contraception, and the liberal side on many other issues in the culture wars, the more of those same Catholics will also drift away from a church they perceive as incapable of change.

Perhaps they’ll attend mass on occasion, and perhaps they’ll still call themselves Catholic, but in many ways, their faith will be a loose garment rather than a straightjacket.

growth of religiously unaffiliated 2014

age breakdown nones 2014


  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Um, people born between 1981 and 2000 are between 15 and 34. Slip of the key on the first age number.

    As an ex-Catholic, I am not surprised. The Catholic Church is a fossil; most people aren’t spiritual paleontologists. In dealing with Millennials as classmates (I went back to school quite late for an advanced degree), I found that they have very little respect for authority. “You want me to do X / don’t want me to do Y? Tell me why.” The answer had better make sense, or they’ll tune out. A refreshing bunch of folks to work with. However, the Catholic Church does not respond to that attitude well.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Thanks for catching this. I actually had it right the first time, but I “corrected” it. 🙂 All of my children, save one, are millennials, and our oldest son falls seven months outside of age bracket.

  2. Avatar
    Matt Martin

    The Church of a Thousand Hands is in serious decline across the developed world. About 25% of Australians identify as Catholic. Our population is around 23 million. The basic test of catholicity (for want of a better word) is attendance at Mass on a Sunday. Of the 5-6 million Aussies who adopt the label “Catholic” only 700,000 or thereabouts attend Mass each Sunday.

  3. Avatar
    Kate Bartlett

    I wonder how much the Catholic churches inability to deal with sexual abuse in an acceptable way has impacted on young people, or anyone for that matter, leaving the church. I know it has played a major part in me no longer identifying as Catholic. I think there is room in a Catholic persons belief system to see the church as old fashioned on birth control or abortion and just make a personal choice. But the cruelty and evil of covering up, supporting pedophiles and to this day not seeing that there is a culture within the church that has lead to sexual abuse is extremely frustrating and sickening.

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    @Kate – the scandal was the beginning of the end for me, as well. The scandal erupted near my house, and I was horrified by the reaction of the church and, frankly, many lay people. it boggles my mind that the same people who condemn homosexuality really don’t have an issue with pedopholia – especially if it endangers the power structure.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      The unchecked, covered up sexual abuse is a big issue for me. I don’t understand how anyone can be part of a sect that routinely covers up sexual abuse. I realize a lot of Catholics are nominal adherents, rarely attending mass. But what about those who are weekly attendees, those who are proud of being Catholic? I’ve yet to see a local Catholic priest or parishioner write a letter to the editor attacking the church’s inaction on sexual abuse of children by priests.

      I don’t understand it.

      • Avatar
        Matt Martin

        Observant Catholics believe that the Church is infallible on questions of the faith and morality. They believe that Christ gave Peter the “keys of Heaven” and point to Matthew 18:18-19 as proof.

        [18] And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19] And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

        So the child abuse scandal in the Church is seen as the failings of individuals not as a failing of the Church because the Church cannot err.

        Moreover there is a rigid hierarchy. Faithful Catholics never criticise clergy or religious. Bishops in particular are revered. The pope is the held to be the successor of Peter and inherits from him these “keys.”

        As a schoolboy I remember when the bishop would visit our schools. We had to call him “my lord.” An archbishop was referred to as “your grace” and a cardinal was “your eminence.” Anything less that utter obsequiousness towards a cleric or religious was considered to border on the faint-making.

        • Avatar
          Kate Bartlett

          Yes Matt it is very creepy the worshipping of the hierarchy and you really couldn’t get a more perfect situation to breed abuse. That is the part that you never hear of the church addressing. The culture is very warped. They just do not want to look at themselves. I think that it has something to do with the very strange, screwed up repressed lives they live as celibate priests and nuns. I don’t mean that being celibate makes you a pedophile. But any situation where people are in very powerful positions over others combined with sexual repression is very unhealthy. It seems very obviously dangerous and they don’t seem to be accepting that.

          • Avatar
            Matt Martin

            I think it has a lot to do with the inherently unhealthy view of human sexuality in christianity in general. Paul fetishised chastity and his writings reveal in stark relief his loathing of the physical body.

            Thomas Aquinas is another offender here. He ranked different sexual sins in order of their odium. Naturally sodomy was at the top, followed closely by masturbation. To Thomas, on of the most influential figures in Catholicism, rape was less offensive to the Almighty than either of those.

            I remember as a yoof in religious education class being taught about the 4 “sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance” or the peccata clamantia. These were:

            1. Willful murder (“The Blood of Abel”)
            2. Homosexual sex (“The sin of the sodomites”)
            3. Oppression of the poor and vulnerable (“The lament of the oppressed in Egypt”)
            4. Cheating the worker of his wages. (“Injustice to the working man”)

            And yet these people would seek to lecture the rest of us on sexual morality.

  5. Avatar
    Kate Bartlett

    I think a lot of Catholics almost see the church as two entities one the Church of Rome. One the church of the people. It’s like the cover ups, the hipocracracy belongs to the leadership of the church while the faith and the goodness, the personal choice re contraception etc. is the every day church of the people. But of course you can’t have it both ways. Although it appears you can.

  6. Avatar

    Here in Ontario, you can’t get a full-time teaching job in the Catholic system unless you are Catholic. It’s the law. Yes, the Catholic system has the right to deny you a teaching job, a full-time contract teaching job unless you are Catholic or convert if you weren’t. First hand knowledge of this. So there are young Millenials here raising and schooling and working in the Catholic school system, baptizing their babies and working in the system who don’t seem very “Catholic” to me. They aren’t attending church and don’t have their kids in Sunday School. Depends on where you live. The more rural areas are very community orientated and for all intense and purposes are considered “conservative” religiously and socially but honestly, so many of them are very liberal politically & socially. There has been talk from the really conservative old camp that today’s young Catholic professionals aren’t Catholic enough.

    • Avatar
      Michael Mock

      So, basically:

      Janine Melnitz: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?

      Winston Zeddemore: Ah, if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.

      • Avatar

        Yes, you could say that.

        You could also say, ‘There’s a steady pay check in it and I’ll do it though I don’t believe it.’

    • Avatar

      Since actually going to church isn’t a requirement to assert that one is a Catholic, what about supporting the church financially? If all you have to do is say I’m a Catholic and never do another thing I can see why there are a lot of CINOs out there.

  7. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    When I was young and still buying into the Catholic dogma, I was a master of cognitive dissonance. The rules of the church were the rules of the church, and if some of them didn’t make sense, that was my problem and I should just trust God and the church’s understanding of him. This was before the sexual abuse scandals came to light, but there were issues of priests abandoning the priesthood (gasp!) and I had no trouble accepting that even though Father Lovedbyeveryone threw in the towel, and he’d been a sensible, helpful, understanding clergyman, now he was evil and we must all shun him; by definition the church was right and he was wrong, no questions allowed.

    But then I had some life experiences that destroyed my ability to manage cognitive dissonance. Yet, knowing my Catholic mother and her Catholic friends, it seems I am rare in this lack of ability. They were quite capable of being horrified at the sexual abuse scandals — those evil priests! — but by definition the church was right, no questions allowed. I think there is actually great comfort in having a church that is always right by definition; Protestants don’t get quite so much comfort along those lines. So, if you can manage the cognitive dissonance, it’s a feature.

  8. Avatar

    I’d like to think the younger generation of Christians are more liberal, perhaps because they are better educated and no longer believe in fairy tales. I think once the older generation of believers die off, Christianity will continue to head in the more liberal direction and perhaps die off eventually. Maybe thats just wishful thinking though.

  9. Avatar

    Reading Potiphars wife… the thing that sets these Catholic Hierarchy apart……is they follow CANON LAW. They feel above a country’s Civil Laws, and say they answer to their seperate state autonomy ruled by CANON LAW. Which upholds the “good name” of the church at all costs, and they cant betray their “brothers” if they gave a personal confession. Very convenient.
    As an Aussie like Matt above, we have just had a Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse, Cardinal Pell , head of the Aus. Catholic church, still facing charges. Another of Bruce’s articles tells of another Archbishop & cover-up.
    I always thought Aussie was a secular country, based on Protestant beliefs. How wrong I was!

    Zoe’s comment above talks of Canada, actually has laws , so Catholics can control the education system!!!!
    It operates different here in Oz, its state run secular public schools…..then there is the very expensive, Catholic elite run system…..whose alumni go on to be our pollies, reporters, Tv celebs,justice system and community leaders. The hypocracy is both are equally funded by the govt taxpayers……talk about a rigged system!!!

    I have already been warned about my Catholic rants here on this site , and the commenters have all aired similar, but there is that word CELIBATE again.
    Yes Kate, I agree with this as a key cause…..even admitted by the Catholic psyche councellor/priest that deals with these predators in his book “Celibacy in Crisis”. They never mature sexually, are in a all male system> it leads to homo and pedophilia and the confusion of sex=sin. (even masturbation, poor frustrated virgins!) Many themselves victims as altar/choir boys.

    As long as Rupert Murdoch(FOX) controls all the media, and hence income of reporters and TV, the Aussie public will never ever get to the truth of this. Murdoch Tweets> Canberra pollies Jump!(& why we had 5 PMs in 4 years)
    A traitor, a papal knight, a union busting tyrant, a media monopolizer, and a Zionist. Sorry USA, like Ken Ham, he is now your fundamentalist conservative right-wing fascist…..pushing agendas via FOX.

    I wonder if Bruce would have become a preacher if he had to remain celibate? (the fact Protest-ant priests can marry is probably why many dont join the “true Faith” & church)

    * Check your own Bible of MATTHEW 19:12 Does it say “Eunechs” or “Celibate” for the kingdom of heaven?

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