Concerned by a recent finding that more than half of young Christian adults abandon their church in their 20s, educators in local Catholic schools are fighting that trend with a timeless weapon: truth.
“Everyone wants to psychoanalyze and say this generation is unlike any before, but in my opinion, the truth is eternal,” said theology teacher Bob McMorrow, who teaches at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage.
“Young people are still attracted to Jesus. They’re still attracted to the Catholic Church,” McMorrow added. “We don’t need to repackage it every three years because our culture changes. We just need to authentically teach the truth.”
Knowledge and Love
Teachers must first cultivate in youth a deep knowledge and love of the faith, the church and its traditions, McMorrow noted. Then, they must counter the conflicting messages of secular culture and ingrain moral decision-making skills and apologetics.
“The problem is a lack of formation, a lack of understanding of what the Catholic faith is,” said McMorrow, who is also the youth director at St. Benedict Church. “If you understand what the church is, the history and the foundation; and you understand all the things that make us truly Catholic — the sacraments, our saints, our connection to Mary and her ability to intercede for us; and you understand the Eucharist, even partially, you can’t abandon that. You can’t go someplace else. There are so many things that are beautiful about our faith, and if they understand it at a real level, they will never let it go.”
Catherine Neumayr, principal of Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, agreed.
“We have such a rich, beautiful heritage. Most of the early popes lost their lives for the faith,” she said. “I just try to give them this knowledge that they can remember and draw on so when they’re lonely and sad in their 20s, they remember that church is something beautiful. There is something beautiful in the Eucharist, and they can always come home to the Eucharist.”
Moral Controversies Welcome
The nucleus of the Holy Rosary campus is a chapel containing the Blessed Sacrament so students are always in the real presence of Christ. In previous generations, many former Catholics left the church because they doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Today’s Catholics ages 18-29 cite varying problems with their faith, including a third who have experienced significant doubts and 40 percent who believe Catholic teachings regarding sex and birth control are out of date, according to a 2011 study by the Barna Group, a national research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.
Neumayr encourages teachers to challenge students by raising provocative questions about Catholicism and then guiding discussions: Are Catholics cannibalistic? Polytheistic? As a confirmation instructor at St. Benedict Church, she also clips news articles about controversial moral topics and instructs students to highlight a few key sentences, then share which statements they highlighted and why.
Lumen Christi principal Tom Sorci said his school proactively integrates moral dilemmas into the curriculum.
“They are being taught to keep their minds clean and their hearts pure, and it’s constantly reinforced in all our classes and Mass,” he said. “We teach them how to make good choices.”
“When you explain the Catholic process of how to make a moral decision, it makes sense and lots of them are very open to that,” McMorrow explained. “Catholic morality is beautiful and logical, and we need to train our young people in it so they can be good decision makers.”
The Age of Tolerance
The lessons are countercultural. Technology and media bombard youth with immorality and provide readily downloadable temptation, be it pornography or violent gaming. Neumayr has observed that younger generations tend to want the Catholic Church to operate like a democracy. If a majority of followers use birth control or support gay “marriage,” for instance, then many would argue the church should adapt to social norms.
“They think truth is dictated by society,” she said. “There’s this general call for tolerance, and few hold convictions as true.”
The Barna Group study reported that half of Catholics ages 18-29 have experienced significant frustration with their religion, and a quarter of them went through a period when they felt like rejecting their parents’ faith.
Another common sentiment Neumayr has perceived among teens and young adults is the sin of presumption — that is, a belief that dabbling in sinful behaviors is acceptable because God loves them unconditionally and wants them to be happy and therefore won’t hold them accountable.
“There are governing principles that are imbued in us by our creator, by our nature and not merely by our environment, and that concept is absent in adolescents, especially in public schools,” Neumayr said. “It’s just not in the (public) curriculum to be taught that man is faith and reason, soul and body. They’ve been taught that all natural law is relative to ‘me and what I consider moral or immoral.’”
McMorrow, father of six, noted that younger generations are so tuned into technology and so overextended in extracurricular activities that practices like family rosary, daily Mass or community service are rare.
“We lose track of the main goal of the family,” he said. “No wonder it’s not sinking in and taking root. We’re sending them to college just touching on the surface of the one thing they really need, and that’s faith.”
Sending such “at-risk Christians” into the collegiate culture can be perilous for their faith. A Pew Forum survey indicated that nearly three-quarters of Americans who change their religion leave their childhood faith in their 20s, usually by 24.
“In college, students are being challenged on the traditional ideas that their family and their early education taught them, in a hedonistic atmosphere,” Neumayr said. “Religion is challenging and filled with paradox, and that’s just not perceived as useful in college. By the time you graduate, you’re this man of reason, and if you can’t feel it, taste it, see it — it’s not important.”
“If you don’t have the wonder, the love, the attachment to this religion you belong to, and you don’t have anything that ties your faith with your peers or your teachers or the books you read, you can become lost,” she added.
After college young adults are delaying the classic hallmarks of adulthood, such as marriage, children and financial independence. Modern 20-somethings are not settling down, starting families and returning to church by age 30, as was often the case in the past. The Barna Group study indicated that a staggering 56 percent of once-active Catholics left the church between ages 18 to 29.
“I am absolutely concerned,” McMorrow said. “My goal is to do youth ministry effectively so when people are 25 they’re still actively Catholic. You can’t judge a Catholic school or youth ministry by what we’re doing now, but so that when they are at that point in their 20s, they can’t imagine their life without the Catholic faith at the center.”
Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Anchorage.