Why are 10-year-olds leaving the church?

Can you remember what it was like to be 10 years of age? I remember playing outside all day in the summer until a yell from my mother — “come in for your dinner” — put an end to my outside activities! Reluctantly, I would trudge home, my mind preoccupied with my friends and our adventures. The last thing on my mind was deciding whether to be Catholic or not.

Today, however, it seems that children are growing up quicker and quicker and are making decisions at a much younger age. That young people are leaving the Catholic faith seems to be old news, unfortunately. But recent studies conducted by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) have garnered national attention for the age at which young people decide to leave the Catholic faith. What is news is the age which young people decide to leave the Catholic faith.

The surveys revealed that the typical age for a young person to leave the Catholic faith was made around the age of 13 but as young as 10. Think about that! Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 percent, said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the faith before the age of 10. Staggeringly, only 13 percent said that they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.

Interviews conducted reveal some of the reasons why these young people leave:

  • “Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
  • “Because I grew up and realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”
  • “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”

Much of the research reflected the difficulty that youth and young adults are having in believing that faith and science can not only coexist but complement one another. If the Catholic Church opposed science, we would expect to find no or few Catholic scientists and no sponsorship by the Catholic Church of scientific studies or institutions right? And yet our Catholic tradition is replete with them!

Historically, Catholics are numbered amongst the most important scientists of all time: Augustinian Fr. Gregor Mendel is considered to be the founder of modern genetics and George Lemaitre, priest and physicist, was the originator of the “Big Bang” theory. Rather than waiting until high school, elementary or middle school is time to introduce young Catholics to the rich patrimony of Catholic learning in the area of science. We as Catholics must take it upon ourselves to equip ourselves with good information so that when we build relationships with these young persons, we are willing to attest to our faith and answer their questions convincingly.

Reaching young people for Christ is incredibly important and a multi-faceted approach should be considered, using strong parent formation, effective and convincing social media and constant invitation and outreach to Catholic families. Relationship building, providing opportunities for young people to encounter Jesus through witness and sharing and giving young people solid, well-reasoned answers to their questions are critical. This is no time to give a watered down version of Catholicism or “dumb” down terminology or the teachings of the church.

Clearly, young people are hungering for meaning and we must be ready to meet their needs with a faith that is mature, explicit, living and fruitful! When they meet us, let them see in us the Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Lk 18:16). The time for complacency is over.

Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization.