Much Ado About “None” Things: When Young People Leave a Church of Exclusion

Many of our readers in the United States may today be wishing they could vote “None” as they cast their ballots, but today’s post concerns a different kind of “None.” These are people who are religiously unaffiliated, and they are on the rise particularly among younger people. I pose a few questions for reflection (and invite your comments at the end of today’s post):

Is the Church today, led by Pope Francis, evolving quickly enough to recapture younger generations turned off by the church’s treatment of LGBT people? What about just retaining those younger faithful who have remained thus far? And if all these Catholics have left for good, what does that mean for the church?

noneoftheaboveResearch from the Public Religion Research Institute, on which Bondings 2.0 reported in September, confirmed that the number of “Nones” in the United States continues to grow. This umbrella demographic for people who have no formal religious affiliation contains many people who had been initiated into the Catholic Church, but who no longer identify as Catholic or who many not be practicing. With 39% of young adults identifying as “Nones,” they are now the largest religious denomination, as it were, among younger generations.

Further, a striking 39% of Catholic respondents cited negative teachings about LGBT people as a primary reason for their disaffiliation. But based on how U.S. church leaders continue to rant, there seems to be little recognition of how deeply damaging prejudice and discrimination have been for the church. Bishops have responded to the growing number of Nones in at least the two following ways.

First, some bishops likely consider being a None a temporary state. They expect younger generations will return to church once these young adults settle down and start families, like generations before them did. But Kaya Oakes wrote in Religion Dispatches about a significant change in these present young adults compared with their parents and grandparents:

“[B]ack to the idea that religiously unaffiliated adults will some day return to religious practice. Both Pew and PRRI use the term ‘religious switching’ to describe both those who change religions and those who leave organized religion. Whereas in the ’70s those who grew up religiously unaffiliated were not likely to stay that way as adults, two-thirds of adults today who were raised without religion stay nonreligious. In other words, this is becoming permanent.”

Second, some bishops may not be too concerned that Catholics whom they consider heterodox or unfaithful are leaving the church; indeed, a smaller and purer church is the ideal for prelates like Archbishop Charles Chaput.

While this exclusionary approach is not quite in keeping with the inclusiveness of Jesus’ life and ministry, the church in the U.S. may be smaller in some areas (though not purer) if the Nones have left for good. Oakes noted cultural and social factors at work, like a greater consciousness of religious diversity and the growth of interfaith marriages. All of these factors make religion less salient for the younger generation. 66% of respondents even said “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” Of these trends, Oakes commented:

“Given the high percentage of those who have left because of the treatment of LGBTQ people, one can easily see why this negative perception exists. As many Americans came to an acceptance of the equal rights of LGBTQ people, multiple religions floundered in their understandings of gender and sexuality. . .

“Hokey ‘young adult’ ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left.”

Oakes said the better questions for churches to ask is what can be done without younger generations because, in her words, “they are not coming back, and given what they’re being presented, why should they?”

In Catholic contexts, much of the more positive presentations about religion have featured Pope Francis. His noteworthy acts since 2013, coupled with some changes in church practice, have certainly advanced the conversation on LGBT issues in the church. But this progress may not be enough and may not be happening fast enough, as Pat Pierrello noted in the National Catholic Reporter. While calling for a new sexual morality in the church, Pierello stated:

“There is no evidence, however, that the church has any recognition that times have changed. Even in the recent synod on the family and Pope Francis’ response to the synod, all the old categories are used and other than a few words about conscience nothing has changed. . .

“The Apostle Paul had no problem modifying the teachings of Jesus on divorce in the face of new circumstances. It is time for the church to develop a more thoughtful morality based on the world we live in. . .It is way past time for the church to develop a new sexual morality that takes into account the lives of real people who are trying to live the Gospel day to day.”

What bothers me about the conversation on Nones, a demographic to which many of my friends and colleagues belong, is how little seriousness and agency is afforded to these religiously unaffiliated, but often very virtuous people.

Most older Catholics, and many younger ones as well, retain a “theology of return” when it comes to Nones. The primary purpose of engaging them is to draw them back into being practicing Catholics. Where parishes can at least acknowledge the role anti-LGBT teachings have had, this might mean an “All Are Welcome” sign or a rainbow flag.

These are positive steps, but they will not be sufficient for young adults in their 20s and 30s (and now 40s). Homosexuality is no longer a moral question for myself and my peers; it is a given reality to be celebrated. Ideas about sexuality are advancing and expanding quickly. New questions are what capture the minds of younger generations who are concerned about transgender and intersex people, asexuality, recovering bisexuality, etc. And unlike past generations, perhaps, young adults today are not waiting around for the church to catch up.

A colleague in ministry once pointed out that formation for ministry in the church today is largely unaffected by the reality that huge swaths of Catholics in the U.S. and some other contexts have left, are leaving, or are being excluded (and the corollary that so few ministers are linguistically and culturally incompetent for Hispanic ministry). Ministers in the church are trained as if everything is going along just fine, admitting perhaps that a few curveballs on gender and sexuality may arise.

The best question for the church to be asking is not how to get young people to return or what we can do to keep people “churched.” The best question we can ask, and which I pose to you, is what our church should be learning from these Nones? And how can we change based on what they, inspired by the holy Spirit, have taught us and our church?

So while the votes are being counted today, what do you think about these questions? Are changes under Pope Francis happening quickly enough to stop the outflow of young Catholics? Are these changes substantive enough to make younger Catholics take a second look? And if no to one or both of these questions, then where does the church go from here on LGBT issues?

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 8, 2016

13 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    It’s kind of hard to take seriously leaders who are so out of touch with reality. If they are so out of touch with the lives of so many people. and with issues of justice and equality, it makes no sense to think they have any authenticity when it comes to their attempts to speak in the name of God. So why even give anything they say a second thought? There is a big difference between authoritativeness and authenticity.

    • conniehiggins
      conniehiggins says:

      Agreed & raises more questions about male priests role who are only interested in power and money not its flock. It aims to keep congregation poor with plenty of children.
      I left church due to women not treated equally, contraception, reproduction rights a women’s choice and conscience not church to judge and preach and stigmatise and condemn women.
      I say all women to boycott the church until women are equally involved in all roles.

  2. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    For the Church, the beat goes on. Odd that we can listen to a priest read the gospel and cite over and over how the high priests of old scowled at, and criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. I guess they can’t actually hear the words when they read.

  3. Colm Holmes
    Colm Holmes says:

    Our hierarchy have got it wrong with LGBT people; with women; with the ban on all artificial contraception. Most importantly they have got it wrong in maintaining an autocratic organisation where 99% of the people of god have no say in any decisions. Pope Francis (17 October 2015) has called for a new structure in our church: an INVERTED PYRAMID with the pope at the bottom and the people of god at the top. We need to move towards this new structure as soon as possible.

  4. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Two comments. One, I think the sex abuse and scandal and the continued cover up is the primary impetus for disillusionment for young and old. Two, the church will renew herself and become once again a vibrant, moral influence in the world. But first like moving from a house lived in for 40 years, everything must be taken out and then slowly what is good, sacred and necessary will be carefully packed and taken to the new church guided, of course, by the Spirit.

  5. Larry
    Larry says:

    Catholics began to realize that the Church was not a leader on the issues of real importance, like the death penalty, nuclear proliferation, poverty, immigration etc.and saw that that was most likely the result of the hierarchy begin part of the power structure rather than following what Jesus would do. So, the Church lost its moral authority. Bashing gay folks was easy for the Church because we were marginalized to begin with and it allowed the clergy to avoid dong anything that might make life uncomfortable for them. As an example, think of what would happen if the Church started investigating their employees using birth control and firing them. There would be a firestorm and a mass exit from the pews. The fact that they do not tackle that issue reveals their hypocrisy.

    Once we saw that the hierarchy had feet of clay, we longer needed to take everything they said “on faith”. The sex abuse scandal and its continuing cover up was a concrete example of the venality and un-Christlike heart of the hierarchy. So now some think that the “nones” will return when they get older? Sorry, although we are older we are smarter. The Church needs a full cathartic remake. My frustration is that it is not happening fast enough.

  6. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    “The Church”? You keep using the phrase when, really, you should instead say “the clergy”. The clergy (especially the bishops) are NOT the Church. Jeez!!!!! When will you learn?

  7. Drew Conneen
    Drew Conneen says:

    Mathew Kelly had a very valid point when he wrote in his book that young people don’t see the Church as “authentic”. That of course can mean different things to different people but I think it validates your points related to the LGBT community. There is hope with some of the new bishops but time will tell. We continue to hope but the election rectoric from many in the Church has made it difficult not to shout out, “what does it take to open your eyes”?

  8. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I am 60, and a lifelong Catholic. When I was an outraged teenager, naming the misogyny in the church, or the rude comments of particular priests, my mom used to say, “Those are men with human failings. That is not the church. It is your job to ignore the priests’ human failings and to worry about your own soul.” My observations were no excuse to skip Sunday mass, that’s for sure! I had obligations.

    I was much more likely to commiserate with my kids, often agreeing with their righteous indignation and observations. Was this the right approach? I think so, but all my kids are totally turned off by the institutional church, even saying, “Why do you insist on aligning with a discriminatory organization when you are so inclusive? It is against all you taught us.” When I talk about change from within, and even try to say what my mom told me, they reject it out of hand.

    The LGBT issue is different than any of the issues I had growing up. It is worse than the exclusion of women in leadership roles. It is institutional discrimination at a level that is aggressive, bullying and just plain wrong.

    I am currently reading Peripheral Visions, by Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead.
    This passage about society at large resonates with me as applicable to the institutional church and clergy:

    One of the oddities of American society today is that standards and regulations have changed
    and multiplied to the point where no one is in compliance with all of them. Even those who
    have never paid a household worker without withholding taxes or been present where
    marijuana was being smoked have driven a little over the fifty-five mile-per-hour limit. Even
    those who are careful to express emerging forms of respect may be haunted by words or
    behavior from the already obsolete understandings of a decade ago. Of course faculty date
    their students, an administrator at Amherst said, how else can they find someone to marry?
    Even those who try to follow all the tax regulations hesitate to try to learn them, so they be-
    come dependent on some accountant’s asking the relevant questions.

    This is not a matter of accepting the wish to comply for the deed and doing better next time.
    No one says halalet basheh. As a result, we have a society in which virtually everyone is
    vulnerable t the tyrannies of selective enforcement, and the IRS audit or a passing patrol care
    makes the most conscientious citizen nervous. Day after day, we are forced to play without
    knowing the rules in situations where small mistakes cannot be laughed off or used for
    further learning. One effect is to discourage participation. Another is to undermine integrity,
    which cannot easily flow from intention to performance. We play Wonderland croquet, and
    the Queen of Hearts is waiting to say, “Off with her head!”

    We are in a grey zone where the church has RULES and living by the gospel does not always cut it with the hierarchy. If we are loving, supportive and in community with same sex couples, there could be drastic repercussions for the couple and/or ourselves. No one is safe from the Queen of Hearts–it could be “Off with her head!” at any moment, just for supporting a gay child, friend, or co-worker. One could be sanctioned for attending a same sex wedding. As Bateson says, this climate discourages participation. And because our young people support LGBT rights, they take the firings and blatant discrimination of their peers very personally. The Catholic church will lose them forever and the young people will lose a very important part of their human identity–being Catholic.

  9. cevon
    cevon says:

    Chris Evon
    The lack of understanding, compassion, and acceptance of the LGBT community has the ‘Nones’ baffled. It makes no sense to them, and therefore being part of the church makes no sense. But if we stop there, I believe we are missing a very important point. The Catholic church is failing to challenge and to move people towards a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. They are not walking with us towards love and unity with each other. Instead the church continues falling into the trap of the Pharisees, that the “Law” is what “saves” us. Instead of helping us to see how being saved is much more about knowing who we really are at our core. That God is a part of our being – each and every one of us. People are and will start to find places that will feed them and lead them in this direction. This is what makes sense now. This is what ignites our hearts. This is our future.


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