Can the church stem the loss of young Catholics?

By Roger DuPuis and Patrick Kernan - [email protected]
Grevera -

For Nicholas Grevera, reading news stories about alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests has only confirmed his growing skepticism about the church.

“You say abortion is bad, and then you pay for one, because a priest raped a person,” said Grevera, 24 and a graduate of Marywood University, a Catholic institution in Lackawanna County.

He was referencing the case of Thomas D. Skotek, a Diocese of Scranton priest who impregnated a teenager during the 1980s while serving at St. Casimir in Freeland, then helped the girl obtain an abortion, according to the findings of a state grand jury report into sex abuse by priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

“Why would I sit through a Mass every Sunday and teachings about their moralities, when I don’t trust them?” Grevera, of Old Forge, said about attending Catholic services.

As with so many institutions across America, the question of retaining — and attracting — millennials such as Grevera could be crucial for the Catholic Church at a time of declining attendance overall.

Changing attitudes toward religion among that generation, coupled with potential negative reaction to revelations of abuse and institutional cover-ups over many decades, could further complicate that challenge for the church.

Statistical shifts

Research released earlier this year by national research firm Gallup found that the number of Americans who identify as Catholic has held mostly steady over the past six decades, even as the number identifying as Protestant has declined sharply.

In 1955, Gallup found, 71 percent of Americans identified as Protestant, and 24 percent as Catholic. By the mid-2010s, those figures had dropped to 47 percent Protestant and 22 percent Catholic.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pew Research Center, another national research firm, 24 percent of adults identified as Catholic in a 2014 study, the largest single Christian denomination in the state, just ahead of mainline Protestants, at 23 percent.

Several other shifts stand out, however, according to Gallup:

• An average of 39 percent of Catholics reported weekly Mass attendance in the mid-2010s, down from 75 percent in 1955.

• Fewer than half of older Catholics are now weekly churchgoers, Gallup found, so the trends are not limited to younger members of the faith, although their cohort has fallen the farthest. In 1955, 74 percent of those ages 21-29 attended Mass weekly; today, the figure is 25 percent.

• The biggest change since 1955? In that year, only 1 percent of Americans said they identified with no religion. Today, 20 percent fall into that category. That trend is most pronounced among the young — 33 percent of the 21-29 group and 28 percent of the 30-39 group identify with no religion.

Millennial Catholic estimates

Perhaps not surprisingly, in keeping with that movement away from religion, millennials (defined by Pew as those born from 1981 to 1996) make up less than a quarter of Catholics, even as they are poised to become America’s largest living adult generation.

Pew estimates that 22 percent of American Catholics are millennials, compared with 28 percent for Generation X (1965-80), 35 percent for Baby Boomers (1946-64), 13 percent for the Silent Generation (1928-45) and 2 percent for the remaining members of the Greatest Generation, born before 1928.

To put that into further perspective, 78 percent of American Catholics are at least 38 years old, and 50 percent are 54 or older.

Diocese of Scranton

It’s hard to say what the comparable numbers are locally. The Diocese of Scranton does not have data about the age distribution of parishioners, spokesman Bill Genello said Friday.

What is known is that the diocese has seen declines in several key metrics since the mid-20th century, as reported in June by the Times Leader.

The 11-county diocese had an estimated 231 parishes in 1950; that’s down to 120 in recent years.

The number of priests, meanwhile, could slip below 100 by 2025 or fewer. Once upon a time, the diocese operated a 120-room seminary in Lackawanna County. It closed in 2004.

At the same time, there has been a small but noticeable rebound. The diocese as of June had 12 men in formation for the priesthood, more than double the number when Bambera became bishop in 2010.

Looking ahead

Again, however, the question is whether the Catholic Church can overcome a growing national trend away from regular attendance among its own, and away from religion altogether for many young Americans.

Grevera’s is of course only one voice — we will hear from more in tomorrow’s continuation of this report — but what he had to say about institutional faith represents what many of his generation also have been saying.

“Do I believe in God? Yeah, I still do. But I don’t believe in this religion,” he said.

“They’re going to have to do something completely radical to bring people back,” Grevera added, though he also has his doubts.

“Things won’t change because of years and years and years of tradition,” he predicted.

* * *

See Monday’s Times Leader for the second part of this story.

Can the churchstem the loss ofyoung Catholics?

By Roger DuPuis and Patrick Kernan

[email protected]

Millennial Catholics

A two-part report on the views of young Roman Catholics — who’s staying in the church, who isn’t and why.

TODAY: Changing demographics, changing views.

MONDAY: Will they stay or will they go?