US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: Young Catholic America

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By Christian Smith et al (Oxford, 2014)

In his latest installment of books on the lives of young adults, Christian Smith, the lead author of Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church, looks at what happened to the role of religion for Catholics ages 18 to 23. Using the language of “emerging adults” to describe this demographic, Smith and his coauthors have based their text on the National Study of Youth and Religion, a six-year study that followed more than 3,000 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 from 2002 to 2008.

What they found was that there are six general types of young adult Catholics, and here is where Smith’s Catholic bias can be seen. The former evangelical uses descriptions that become increasingly positive the “more Catholic” they are: Apostates, Switchers, Estranged, Nominal, Engaged, and Devout. It’s perhaps this categorization that reveals Smith’s characteristic negative attitude toward the influence of the general culture. Smith tends to lament the society in which young adults have been raised rather than merely examine it as a sociologist; he finds few, if any, good attributes.

Especially helpful is a section mid-book that examines how to determine who is Catholic enough for a study such as this. It’s a question that I often find vexes only those with more stringent criteria and who tend to be more conservative, but Smith et al offer a thorough and interesting examination of different markers that classify Catholics. These markers include things such as Mass attendance, self-identification, and having Catholic parents.

Academic in tone and full of statistical data and analysis, this sociological approach to the lives of young adult Catholics would be best utilized by national organizers of youth ministry and programming. But little is offered as a solution to the dramatic loss of young adults. Those answers are left up to youth ministers.

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 5, page 43).