Baltimore, Md., Jun 14, 2019 / 02:49 pm (CNA).- As the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore this week, primarily to vote on proposals to respond to the clergy abuse crisis, another crisis loomed large with no easy solutions—how to evangelize the “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation.
Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, delivered a presentation on Tuesday morning at the annual spring meeting of the U.S. bishops on “this massive attrition of our own people, particularly the young” from the Church. He exhorted fellow bishops “to look at this issue of who are the unaffiliated, why are they leaving, and how do we get them back.”
He presented some sobering statistics: for every one person joining the Church today, 6.45 are leaving. Almost eight in ten leave by the age of 23, and the median age for leaving the Church is just 13 years old.
Where are they going? While roughly one quarter are becoming Evangelical, and another 25 percent are joining another religion or denomination of Christianity, half are simply atheist, agnostic, or without any religious affiliation, Barron said.
“Most are ambivalent about religion rather than hostile to it,” he noted.
They are leaving Catholicism primarily because “they don’t believe it,” he told CNA in an interview on Thursday. Regarding “the questions about God and about Jesus and about eternal life and about the soul,” he said, “they don’t believe it. They think religion’s at odds with science. That comes through all the time.”
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., agreed with the assessment that a primary reason for young people leaving the Church is a lack of belief. However, he challenged the assumption that there are clear-cut intellectual reasons why teenagers as young as 13 are leaving the Church. “The question that popped into my head was were they really believing (in the first place)?” he said of the statistic.
According to Barron, some of the other common reasons given for lack of religious affiliation are a perceived intolerance of revealed religion, opposition to being told what to do, a belief in a personal relationship with God outside of revealed religion, and a perception that religion is anti-science or anti-rational.
Some of the reasons Barron gave for the migration of young people away from the Church are secularism, and with it, a culture of relativism “which gives rise to the self-invention culture (of)…I decide who I am. I decide what I believe.”
Thus, when the Church makes objective claims and preaches dogmas and doctrines, “that meets with a lot of resistance,” particularly teachings on sexuality and morality which are a “stumbling block for a lot of people,” Barron added.
However, despite recent revelations of clerical sex abuse and misconduct and cover-up by bishops and prelates, the abuse crisis has not played a primary role in young people departing the Church, both bishops said.
“It’s not been certainly one of the top reasons. It’s there, but certainly not a top reason,” Barron said.
“All of the surveys that I’ve seen around people who have turned 18 since 2000,” Coyne said, “the abuse crisis is way, way down on the list of why they left the Church, and why they’re not affiliated with the Church.”
According to a survey of the religiously unaffiliated by the Pew Research Center conducted in December of 2017, 25 percent of respondents said that “I question a lot of religious teachings” is the most important reason they do not identify with a religion, the leading reason among the “Nones” for their lack of affiliation.
“I think we’ve underplayed the intellectual side. We’ve undervalued what kids are capable of, intellectually,” Barron said, noting that young people are leaving the Church “more and more consciously. They are making a conscious decision—not just drifting away, but they are deciding to go. And that’s often on intellectual grounds.”
During his presentation to the bishops, Barron brought up University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson and his popular online discussion of the Bible as an example of young people still showing interest in religion despite having no official affiliation.
However, the mere mention of the controversial best-selling author of “12 Rules for Life” at the meeting of the bishops provoked backlash and claims that the conference had endorsed Peterson’s treatment of the Bible as a “model” for evangelization.
On Thursday. Barron clarified that he brought up Peterson not to cast him as a model for evangelization, but rather to draw attention to his online appeal and evoke questions as to why he is so popular.
“It really wasn’t about the content at all, except that he is talking about the Bible, which I think is really interesting, and getting millions of views with learned talks about the Bible, which aren’t bad,” Barron told CNA. “From a psychological perspective, they’re pretty good I think.”
He brought up Peterson “to look at the phenomenon and say maybe we’ve been underplaying what our young people are capable of. Maybe we can address these issues at a high level too.”
However, in addition to paying attention to intellectual currents among the religiously unaffiliated, cultural and sociological currents need to be considered as well, Coyne insisted. For example, there are trends showing that Millennials do not join parishes or social clubs at nearly the same rates as previous generations once did—and thus may be harder to reach within the traditional boundaries of parish life.
Furthermore, approaches to evangelization cannot be “too high-altitude,” he cautioned, because in addition to young people who are invested in intellectual debates about religion such as online forums about atheism or Jordan Peterson’s discussion of the Bible, there are many other Millennials without a college education who don’t partake in any of these discussions.
Vermont has one of the highest graduation rates for high school students, Coyne said, but one of the lowest rates of graduates who enter college; instead of tertiary education, they pursue careers in small business, the military or other occupations that don’t require a college degree.
“A 22 year-old in a double-wide in rural Vermont is not going to put the YouTube of the psychologist from Toronto on who talks about faith,” he said.
So what is working for evangelization in his diocese? Ideally, the faith is learned at home, practiced by the parents, and passed on to the children, he said.
“I would say if we’re going to try and help people raise children in the faith so as to make a good choice to stay in the faith, then they have to be disciples,” Coyne said. “I’m seeing that in a lot of our families that stay in the Church, the parents are disciples because they choose to stay in the Catholic Church.”
“It’s not a matter of cultural Catholicism, it’s Catholicism by choice,” he added.
For adults who are religiously unaffiliated and living apart from their families, there’s also networking, he said. Lay Catholics in Burlington have begun to form Catholic business associations and medical associations not unlike the guilds from centuries ago, and in the process have been able to form relationships and support each other in the faith.
“It’s the Holy Spirit, it’s incredible,” Coyne said. “The evangelization part is really being picked up by lay men and lay women, and they understand that evangelization is relational.”
“They come together, they pray, they support each other, and they also talk about the struggles of being a Catholic in the medical profession or being Catholic in the business community.”
For example, a local doctor started a Catholic medical association group and “they had their first meeting at my house, they had about 40 people come who are all in the medical profession, who are all Catholics who are looking to network,” Coyne said.
Meanwhile, regarding evangelization on the intellectual level, Barron pointed to the Catholics who are prolific in their evangelization through social media and in person such as his Word on Fire Ministries, FOCUS, St. Paul Street Evangelization, and figures such as Scott Hahn and Peter Kreeft.
He also admitted to other paths to the faith than through purely intellectual arguments, such as the “way of beauty” and the “way of justice.”
“Young people respond very much to the call to social justice,” he said. “There’s a huge part of our tradition around that, from John Chrysostom to Dorothy Day and Pope Francis. That’s a wonderful tradition.”
If there was one thing he could tell a lay Catholic at a parish about evangelization to others, Barron said, “don’t be afraid to tell them about your relationship with the Lord.”
“Don’t be afraid to share your faith, and talk about your faith and what it means to you. And people will respond to that, even if they don’t seem to at first.”