Why do so many young people leave the Church?

My flippant answer is, “The same reason old people leave the Church, or anyone really”. Levity aside, it’s a good question. Many people enter the Church every year, and many people also leave every year. Why is that? It’s TL;DR time again, as I’ve got a lot to say with RCIA starting again at my parish this week.

Catholic News Agency reported last week on a story that almost two-thirds of young adult Catholics who left the faith did so between the ages of 10 and 17, even if they couldn’t actually assert their departure from the faith until they left home. Although a variety of reasons were given, the biggest single reason was that they saw the faith as being incompatible with science.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a natural result of the increasing secularization of our culture. Agnosticism (and sometimes outright atheism) is often presented by the secular culture as our natural state, and faith is often presented by that same culture as an anomaly that cannot stand against the exercise of reason.

This misconception is reinforced when some of our Christian brothers and sisters from a Protestant Evangelical background assert unreasonable things from a strictly literalist interpretation of Scripture, such as the earth only being several thousand years old, humans and dinosaurs coexisting, or fossils being the creation of Satan to deceive us (which God apparently permitted to happen in order to test our faith).

But the increasing secularization of our culture, with its false narrative that there is an incompatibility between faith and science, is only part of the picture. It alone cannot explain the widespread departure of young people from the faith.

The very early Church of the first few decades existed in the midst of a Jewish culture where the elites were not merely skeptical of but hostile to Christianity. In the midst of that hostile environment, the Church grew.

The early Church of the first few centuries was surrounded by a pagan culture hostile to Christianity. In the midst of that even more hostile environment, with outright persecution and suppression on the part of the Roman government far beyond what the Jewish leaders did in the first few decades of the Church, the Church grew even more.

Today in this country we face inconveniences, but we do not face persecution. Some of us make those inconveniences out to be far more than they are, even putting them on the same level as persecution. If we get this worked up over mere inconveniences, what will we do in the face of actual persecution?

Children do not leave the Church just because the going gets tough. Those children who have willingly died a martyr’s death at the hands of Islamic State executioners bear witness to the fact that a child as much as an adult can remain faithful and true even in the toughest of situations. Not everyone chooses to remain faithful in the midst of persecution, but persecution alone is not the exhaustive reason for weak or absent faith any more than a secular culture is.

A person who leaves the Church may be encouraged in doing so for a variety of reasons. We could say that those who leave the Church were never actually taught the faith to begin with. Their lack of knowledge of the faith could be why they do not believe. A lack of knowledge is an obstacle to learning about the faith. A lack of knowledge can be a factor in the loss of or lack of faith. It can play the same role as something like a hostile culture. But salvation is not dependent upon knowledge, or it would be impossible for infants and the truly ignorant to be saved.

At its heart, with all supporting factors stripped away, the real reason for any departure from the Church is a lack of conversion. When conversion does not taken place, faith cannot take root and grow.

Parents who are very involved in the life of the Church can and do have children who fall away and leave the Church. No matter how faithful a parent is, no matter how much effort is put into instruction, no matter how good of an example is shown, once the age of reason is reached a child must want to accept the Christian faith on their own. The parent cannot do it for them.

Conversion is not a one time event. Initial conversion is, which is why it is called initial. There can only be one beginning; what comes after is a continuation rather than a beginning. Quite often there is a strong initial conversion, but ongoing conversion falters not long afterwards.

That was the case with me. Once I was old enough to use reason when hearing about the Eucharist, old enough to figure out not what the Eucharist is but WHO the Eucharist is, my initial conversion began. As I was instructed in the Catholic faith, my initial conversion became ongoing conversion.

But my ongoing conversion ran smack into a brick wall just a few years later. That obstacle was unrepentant sin.

From somewhere around 1982 (maybe a year earlier or later, but I can’t remember exactly because it was so long ago) until 2008, I did not make a good confession. Oh, I confessed many sins. I was sincerely sorry for all of the sins that I confessed. But I held something back. It started out as one unrepentant act, but it very quickly became two. Then three. Then four. Eventually too many to count.

I would not accept God’s grace. Not because God wouldn’t give his grace to me, but because I did not want to do what was necessary to be able to accept it. I did not want to let go of that sin.

I received the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation as a teenager, but those gifts lay unused for a long time because I did not receive any sacramental grace along with them. I received the public recognition of my marriage by the Church in 1994 at the age of 24, but again did not receive any sacramental grace along with it.

Looking back now, it’s so easy to see where I went wrong. It’s so easy to see how I started slowly destroying myself so long ago by refusing to accept responsibility for having done a grave evil. That one sin, so simple and so alone at the time, was a chain around my neck. Every time that sin was repeated, the chain grew and became heavier. Once other chains joined it from other unrepentant sins, the whole mess became an unbearable weight.

I carried that weight, that feeling of disgust with myself, that feeling of unworthiness and emptiness and pain and loss, for a long time. All because I was not wiling to admit that I had done wrong.

Some people balk at the teaching that a single unrepentant mortal sin condemns a person to eternal damnation. But that teaching is correct. I lived it personally and know how true it is. It doesn’t matter how many good things we do if we willfully hold on to evil in our hearts. Even a single unrepentant sin will poison everything we do and eventually lead to further unrepentant sins.

And not once did anyone other than my parents actually call me personally to repentance and conversion. There was the occasional homily that touched briefly on the topic of sin and repentance, but sadly the importance of ongoing repentance and conversion wasn’t a frequent topic.

My catechists instructed me in the nuts and bolts of the faith, but they seemed to assume that we were all on the right track and that our faith was strong. I learned many things about the Catholic faith. I was given time to reflect. I was given time to pray. I was involved as an altar server, and then as a reader. But I was never really challenged to maintain ongoing conversion.

I do not wish to downplay the importance of knowing the faith. Knowledge is a tool to help us maintain our faith, to help us with our ongoing conversion, to grow deeper in our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters. A lack of knowledge does not outright prevent conversion, but it can be an obstacle to conversion.

I also do not wish to downplay the importance of a faithful witness by parents, catechists, and fellow Christians. A lack of witness does not outright prevent conversion, but it can be an obstacle to conversion.

Those who have fallen away don’t need to be taught back into the faith. They don’t need to be witnessed back into the faith. They need to have the Good News preached to them, not in a harsh and judgmental way but in a loving and caring way. They need to be called as sinners, by sinners, to repent. They need to be challenged, as Jesus challenged the people of his time.

I see this every year as a catechist at my parish. The adults we have in RCIA are a mix of non-Catholic Christians (some who have always been faithful and some who have not) who have come to believe that the Catholic Church probably teaches the fullness of God’s revelation, and unbaptized people who want to know more about Catholicism and are at least somewhat considering becoming Catholic. They have all come because of an initial conversion, and need help being lead to an ongoing conversion. Sin is always the primary obstacle to that ongoing conversion. Their willingness to be challenged varies widely.

But the children we have in RCIA, which is where I primarily serve, are almost all children of Catholic parents. Some have been baptized as Catholics but are effectively not Catholic because they were never catechized at all. Others have not been baptized, either because their family left the Church before they were born or their family is not Catholic. Sin is always the primary obstacle to their ongoing conversion as well, but they have a far greater willingness to be challenged than the adults.

Our young people, even in the midst of their skepticism and uncertainty as they are called to ongoing conversion and instructed in the faith, WANT to have faith and believe. They want their lives to have meaning beyond what our secular culture provides with its entertainment and material things. They want to belong to something greater than themselves. They want to be challenged, just as I wanted to be challenged years ago when I was their age.

I do my best to challenge the teens who are in my group. I do not shy away from the “difficult” topics, such as contraception or homosexuality or cohabitation. I share personal testimony in an appropriate manner, making sure they know that I’m not perfect and recognize that I need God’s mercy at least as much as anyone else. I make it clear that God wants to grant them his mercy, no matter what they have done wrong or continue to do wrong, if they are willing to share it with him and ask for his forgiveness and help.

And they respond. Sometimes they respond immediately. Sometimes it takes a while. For a few, perhaps they will never respond. That is not up to us. All that is up to us, if we consider ourselves disciples of Christ, is to continually preach the Good News in whatever way is particular to our station in life. Always truthfully, and always with charity.