The following blog appeared in the November 4th version of Catholic School Matters

Last month at NCEA’s Catholic Leadership Summit in Jacksonville, I was privileged to hear John Vitek, the CEO of Saint Mary’s Press, about their research in Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.  I had heard about the study but was struck by Vitek’s presentation and his explanation of why young people are leaving the Catholic Church.  We need to face the reality that people are leaving the Church and the effects—sacraments are down, enrollment in Catholic schools are down, and the growth of non-religious and former Catholics.

Disaffiliation is a process.  People don’t wake up one day and decide that they aren’t going to be Catholic.  It’s a process where step by step people wander down the journey away from the faith.  When we think about affiliation, we know that people join clubs, groups, and religions by steps.  So perhaps we should think about disaffiliation in the same way and try to design ways to capture people on their path to disaffiliation.

And that might cause us to rethink what it means to be considered Catholic. I think many Catholics believe that only the purest should be considered. Catholics need to meet every standard, profess every appropriate belief, and practice every practice to be considered truly Catholic. So if one believes that gay marriage is acceptable, for example, then they aren’t part of the tribe. Or if they are divorced and receive communion, they should be likewise shunned. Yet there are many good people in the faith who are trying to stand up for what they believe is right. Rather than view them as 85% affiliated/15% unaffiliated, we view them as 100% unaffiliated, which causes them to walk further down the disaffiliated path.

The implications for our schools is tremendous.  Rather than measuring school’s success by measuring the number of pure Catholics it produces (e.g. vocations to the priesthood), we should view our schools as Catholic field hospitals providing a means of affiliation for Catholics that they wouldn’t otherwise receive.  Perhaps all we are providing is a step toward affiliation and away from disaffiliation.  And isn’t that worth something?

Vitek presented two videos which voice the concerns of disaffiliated Catholics.  Beatriz, an immigrant from Mexico, describes her decision to leave the Church and it sounds remarkably similar to other millenials.  Lauren describes her journey away from the Church to a new identity (which she calls “Catholic-ish”).  There are other stories on this page.  These stories are a great way to listen and try to understand young people.

Wait?  Where have we heard that before?  Try the final document of the Bishop’s Synod on Young People (you can find a translated unofficial version here).  The final document uses the Emmaus Story to illustrate the challenge to the church to walk with our young people.

Along those lines, read this great article from Fr. Joe Corpora about the Joy of Missing Out.  He incorporates accompaniment, prayer, and a fresh perspective for young people.  And I also recommend Dr. Kevin Baxter’s latest blog entitled “Contemplating Loss” which is a great reflection on community and also gives practical advice on how to approach the leadership crisis which is affecting us all.