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Issue Date:  December 16, 2005

By Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton
Oxford University Press,
346 pages, $25
The spiritual life of teens in America

Study finds that the Catholic church does a poor job of attending to its youth


Everyone knows that teenagers are trouble, and particularly religious trouble. When some 51 years ago the pastor gave me charge of the teen club (although I had never been a teen myself), he warned me, as did many of the people in the parish, that the members were difficult, unruly, shallow, selfish, spoiled rich kids. In fact they were not. Quite the contrary, their generosity and enthusiasm had and still have an enormous impact on my life. I was not particularly successful in my work with them, but that was my fault, not theirs.

The number of charges against teenagers has increased notably during the ensuing half century. They are, it is said, alienated from their own religious heritages and are for all practical purposes pagans. They resist parental pressure to be more religious. Or they are searchers looking for a nonreligious spirituality or for New Age religions or witchcraft or whatever. Most of them are in the process of drifting away from the religion of their families and are not likely to return. They are in open rebellion against all religion. They are bemused and confused by television, the Internet, drugs, alcohol, sex. They are materialists, and secularists, and hedonists devoid of all moral sense.

This portrait or something much like it pervades the national media, the clergy, the religiously concerned laity and the pop sociological and pop psychological conventional wisdom. Everyone knows these drug-addicted religious slackers are a threat to all religious heritages.

Professor Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has in recent years conducted several major surveys of the teenagers of today. In his new book Soul Searching, he demolishes the conventional wisdom -- which is one of the things that good social science is supposed to do. Granted that there are some angry, alienated, neo-pagan rebellious teens who reject all religion, the majority are not all that different from their parents and seem to be drifting in the direction of being religious adults much like their parents. “U.S. teens as a whole are anything but areligious or irreligious.”

That this is true anyone with common sense might suspect, but in the historic absence of collective common sense on the subject of teens, Soul Searching is an important book. I could not help think as I read it that the teens on which Dr. Smith reports are not unlike those “spoiled rich” kids I came to know and love in Christ the King Parish a half century ago. In his conclusion, Dr. Smith confirms this impression when he suggests that the patterns he observes may not have changed all that much over time.

He has two important practical conclusions that should be obvious but are not to the viewers-with-alarm. The first is that the strongest religious influence on teens is the religious behavior of their parents. “You get what you give,” as he observes appositely. He adds a second comment for religious organizations: They will generally “get back what they invest.”

Dr. Smith, who is not a Catholic, devotes a special chapter to Catholic teenagers. He was baffled by the fact that despite the enormous potential Catholicism seems to have for its teens, they in fact lag behind most other mainstream American religions. Tremendously impressed by a Catholic youth day in Houston -- it reads like it was an exuberant exercise in the Catholic imagination -- Dr. Smith wonders why this potential is not translated into much more intense teenage Catholics. Among four possible explanations he points out are that Catholic parents are less religiously devout than other parents, that Catholic congregations are less likely to have programs for teens, that approaches to religion in Catholic high schools have changed, and that the CCD (as he calls it) does not seem especially well organized or effective. Catholic teens are only half as likely as Protestants to be involved in a parish youth group and their parishes are half as likely (21 percent) to have a full-time youth minister. Teens seem to be the forgotten people in the chaos and confusion of the Catholic church.

It seems unthinkable that 80 percent of Catholic teens are not in parishes with a full-time youth minister -- unthinkable and outrageous. Since they represent the future, they are the most important people in a parish, yet somehow they slip “between the cracks,” as Dr. Smith suggests. Many priests and parents seem to assume that Catholic schools -- those that haven’t been closed -- and “religious education” are doing the job.

In the old days, young priests were dumped into the teenage world. They were the youth ministers, and cheap ones at that. Now there are few young priests and many of the “newly ordained” are no longer young and perhaps too set in their ways to cope with teens. Like most adults, many pastors, like mine 50 years ago, can’t stand teens. They are noisy, disorderly, messy and potentially destructive. Keep them off parish property if you possibly can. Yet since the Catholic imagination tends to be both sacramental and hierarchical, Catholic youth programs need a priestly presence, if only occasionally and marginally. Moreover, it has to start while the young people are still in seventh and eighth grades if they are to be won by the parish before they leave for the alien world of high school. The priests need not be on the basketball courts every afternoon as I was -- with pathetic lack of skill. But they have to be around and interested. One should not hold one’s breath until that happens.

However, Dr. Smith’s data show the result of the perhaps unintended neglect of teens: “Compared to both official Catholic norms of faithfulness and to other types of Christian teens … contemporary U.S. Catholic teens are faring rather badly. On most measures of religious faith, belief, experience and practice Catholic teens as a whole show up as fairly weak.” He observes, “The old wineskins cannot hold the new wine and so it is often spilled and lost.”

He concludes his sensitive and perceptive chapter with another reference to the Houston youth conference that obviously dazzled him: “The jubilant, intense, exhausting and inspiring Houston Conference reveals the great potential that the U.S. Catholic church has for seriously informing and engaging its teenagers. … It would seem to require that the church invest a great deal more attention, creativity and institutional resources into its young members and therefore into its own life. Undeniably the future shape of the U.S. Catholic church vitally depends on it.”

Such a warning from a friendly and competent social scientist should be taken seriously by Catholics. I doubt that it will be. Moreover, I wonder to how many other groups, not necessarily politically correct, Dr. Smith’s warning might be extended -- young adults, young marrieds, singles, empty nesters, the elderly and so on, and so on. They all show great potential for the church, but not many folks seem interested. Indeed, the National Catholic Reporter’s most recent survey of American Catholics reveals a Catholic population with enormous potential.

Yet the church seems paralyzed by pernicious pessimism. I hear that the Chicago archdiocese may well diminish to only 100,000 people (a view I think might be a sin against the Holy Spirit), that the church will grow smaller in most Western countries (with the implication that this might not be a bad thing), that secularism, materialism, paganism and hedonism are crushing the Catholic heritage. Many of our leaders seem to be paralyzed by the problems they face: fallout from the sexual abuse mess, not enough money, not enough priests, too many parishes, too many schools, immigrants, complaints to Rome, our own internal culture wars, lay people who will not take the leaders seriously when they issue orders, restless and rebellious clergy and laity, decisions that must often be made in the dark.

Teenagers? They rank pretty low on the agenda, indeed beneath the radar screen.

Yet for that residue of Catholics who are concerned about future generations, Soul Searching is a must-read.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is a sociologist and writer whose most recent novel is The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood.

National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005

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