What Catholics are Reading: Young Catholic America

The book Young Catholic America takes a compelling, well-researched, and detailed look at emerging Catholic adults (18-23 years old). As young Catholics are meeting challenges and experiences during this transition, the authors wanted to know: “What happens in the midst of those transitions to their religious faith, practices, beliefs, associations, and commitments? How much do they change and why? Answering such questions well is the central purpose of this book.”

For anyone who works with people in and around this age group, or anyone that’s concerned with the future of the Catholic Church (or anyone who is in this age group), understanding the research and current environment for these emerging adults is absolutely critical.

The purpose of this blog post is to do just that for you. The hope of this post is to glean the great work the authors have done while hoping to inspire you to read the book yourself. You can buy it here. The authors (Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen) do us a great service in the research they provide.

So, why should you read this book? Here are just five reasons:

1. The book helps readers understand the history of Catholicism from 1945 to the 2000s.

The authors help tell the story of the breakdown of Catholicism and how Catholic millennials today compare to the generations before them. Here are two helpful quotes:

“The old system of Catholic faith transmission — which relied on concentrated Catholic residential neighborhoods, ethnic solidarity, strong Catholic schools, religious education classes designed to reinforce family and parish…had drastically eroded by the time this generation (the parents of emerging adults) came of age. Yet no alternative approach to effective inter generational Catholic faith transmission had been devised and instituted to replace the old system – and indeed it is not clear that any such effective system has yet been put into place even today” (Young Catholic America 26, emphasis added).

“Catholic emerging adults across four decades display very little change in their beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Eighteen- to 25 year-old Catholics in the 2000s look very much like 18- to 25 year-olds in the 1970s on a variety of measures” (30).

2. The book gets into the makeup of 18- to 23-year-olds today through in-depth analysis.

Young Catholic America provides a tremendous amount of statistics. Many are very insightful.

At one point, the authors break down statistics into four categories: US National Average, Practicing Catholics, Sporadic Catholics and Disengaged. I expect Catholics who sporadically practice the faith or those disengaged from the faith to look much like everyone else. But the stats on practicing Catholics caught my eye the most:

US Average of Practicing Catholics, Ages 18-23

US Average vs. Practicing Catholics Table

If you are like me, some of these stats are sure to give you some pause.

*Note on what qualifies as a practicing Catholic: About this categorization, the authors state, “The Practicing Catholics, as we have categorized them in this chapter, are not ‘super Catholics.’ On the whole, they are Catholics who take the faith seriously and practice it both publicly (in Mass attendance) and privately (in prayer)” (p. 202). Earlier the authors mention that half of this group attends Mass weekly, say their faith is very or extremely important and pray at least a few times a week (p. 202).

3. The book contains stories of real Catholic millennials as the authors follow, interview and record their findings over the course of their journey as emerging adults.

My guess is that this was the most difficult part of their research. As the reader, it was nice to understand Catholic millennials through a narrative and not just data. I can’t do any of the stories justice, so you’ll have to read them for yourself.

4. The authors include key takeaways for passing on the faith.

Even though much of the book might be read as bad news, the authors clearly identify why some emerging young adults do stay Catholic.

One of the biggest ways that Catholic parents have tried to keep their kids Catholic is through Catholic schooling, particularly high schools. On Catholic high schools, the authors state this:

“In short, attending Catholic high school does not make it more likely that young people will practice the faith (attend Mass and pray) at higher levels in emerging adulthood; but it does make it more likely that they will practice at some level, even if minimal” (254, bold emphasis added).

Instead, the authors break down several other reasons why Catholic teenagers maintain or achieve a high level of religious commitment and practice as they become emerging adults, including ties to religious adults and an internalized faith based on daily practice.

5. The authors really stick the landing in their conclusions.

In the beginning of the book, the authors of Young Catholic America elaborate on the breakdown of Catholicism in the twentieth and twenty-first century. They mention that, after the breakdown of the family and parish’s ability to transmit the faith, “No alternative approach to effective inter-generational Catholic faith transmission had been devised and instituted to replace the old system.”

Out of the three main factors/takeaways that the authors present, the most important is the first: Relationships are the key to passing on the faith. To me, THIS IS the new alternative approach to effective transmission of the Catholic faith.

On relationships, the authors note, “In the absence of such relationships, the institutions, programs, and practices can feel empty to teens and thus become almost totally ineffective. But when they succeed in cultivating healthy relationships that foster religious faith and human flourishing, they can be very powerful indeed in passing on the Catholic faith” (198).

Institutions and programs don’t change people. People change people. We can’t forget this.

There are some great organizations out there that emphasize this person-to-person approach as well. YDisciple is my absolute favorite among teens. On the college level, Catholic Christian Outreach, St. Paul’s Outreach and FOCUS are all working through relational evangelization. With young adults, i.d. 9:16 is starting to do some great work. Through the work of Sherry Weddell and others, many on the diocesan level are beginning to do some great work. And I love the direction that the Archdiocese of Kansas City, KS and Amazing Parish movements are taking.

These groups are willing to use programs and institutions, but they realize that evangelization is nothing without relationships. This is foundational, and it can’t be overlooked.

If we want to see change and change is a greater way than the statistics on practicing Catholics found in Young Catholic America, we need courageous men and women who are willing to live out the faith in bold ways and who are willing to share it with others — one person at a time.

More Resources on What Catholics Are Reading:

Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell

The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic by Matthew Kelly

Evangelical Catholicism by George Weigel

Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter
Kevin Cotter is the Executive Director of Programming at Amazing Parish. He previously served with FOCUS for 11 years as a missionary and Sr. Director of Curriculum. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Benedictine College and a master’s degree in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. He is the author of numerous FOCUS resources and Bible studies and several books, including Dating Detox with his wife Lisa and Called: Becoming a Disciple in a Post-Christian World. Kevin currently resides in Denver, CO with his wife, Lisa, and their children.

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