Do Young Catholics Even Understand Their Religion?

Millennials are not leaving because the teachings of the Church are not “progressive” enough, but because they themselves do not know the true substance of their faith.

Bishop Fulton Sheen, the earliest and perhaps best known Catholic televangelist, once famously said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” In the public debates that now daily rile the American republic, this declaration rings true more and more often. But Bishop Sheen’s exhortation to teach the substance of the Catholic faith to a largely Protestant, and often hostile, public is outdated. Today, his observation stands at the center of the true issue in the church –the failure in Catechesis of an entire generation.

It is easy to see that the Millennial generation is religiously “uneducated.” To begin with, the number of students in Catholic schools has reportedly plummeted from a peak of 5.2 million students in the 1960s to roughly 2 million. The fall in vocations has left education outside of the Catholic school system in the hands of just a few active parents. Sunday school competes with weekend soccer or baseball tournaments. Even at Catholic universities, religious studies have become sidelined, with traditional Scripture classes now termed “Biblical Literature.”

I believe this mass failure in religious education has left young Catholics woefully unprepared for the spread of moral relativism and a “whatever makes me happy” attitude. Simultaneously, political and social issues have been allowed to take the place of the real substance of the Catholic faith found in the rich liturgy and the Sacraments. How can we expect a young Catholic to fully grasp Church teaching on contraception, abortion, and poverty if they do not understand basic beliefs like the Eucharist, the reception of the body and bloody of Christ; original sin, that mankind is inherently born with sin and will do wrong at times; or salvation, that we are perfected not in our life on earth but in heaven? How can we expect a young Catholic to find inspiration in their faith in a world of religious violence and suffering if they do not know the lives of the martyrs –who died not to spread dissent but were killed for bringing peace –and the role of the church in history?

Pope Francis and the organizers of World Youth Day recognized the dire need for catechesis, which is an education in the faith “with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” They made it a core component of the massive Catholic youth gathering, planning 273 separate sites in 20 different languages. Fr. Leandro Lenin, organizer of the catechesis events, said that they didnt want “only pilgrims that just go to the big venues, but we want pilgrims that are aware of their mission and responsibility after World Youth Day .they’ll be sent by Pope Francis back to their countries to make new disciples and catechesis is the secret.”

That catechesis is needed is no secret, but the new forms it is taking could be described as “underground.” This “underground Catechism” is spreading like wildfire for a reason. It connects to the Millennial generation in new and innovative ways, beyond the book-based Sunday School education that worked for our parents and grandparents but has failed to reach us. One popular example is “Theology on Tap,” events where clergy go out from their parishes and host conversations at local bars or restaurants to discuss church teaching. Another is the rise in reading groups, adopting the more informal Bible study group style. These reading groups would do well to turn to more contemporary works, such as G.K. Chesterton’s famous explorations of the Catholic faith. The Archdiocese of Washington had a “Rio in DC” World Youth Day watching event, allowing young Catholics to take part in the celebrations from afar.

Then, of course, there is the use of new media. While late to the scene, the @Pontifex Twitter account has been a simple but effective way for the pope to communicate with the faithful on a daily basis. Catholic blogging has brought thoughtful reflections from homilies often heard only weekly to the faithful in a daily, accessible manner. Some have taken a more light-hearted, humorous manner, like “St. Peter’s List,” which explores the Catholic faith in Buzzfeed-style lists. Fr. Robert Barron’s global media ministry “Word on Fire” has created a huge following by bringing a Catholic message to a wide range of news and media formats.

The key to improving catechesis will be continuing this innovation, finding new ways to reach a Millennial generation that is constantly plugged in and spending less time in their parishes. The old model of “Sunday School” and CCD, the parish Catechesis program for children, is fading, and regardless of who is at fault for the failure in catechesis of an entire generation, it is time to look ahead. The growing movement is “underground” because it is less formal, more driven by the youth themselves and often outside the framework of traditional forms of catechesis. Embracing and encouraging more of these gatherings, blogs and groups will go hand in hand with a church-wide focus on promoting understanding of what Catholics truly believe.

Millennials are not leaving because the teachings of the Church are not “progressive” enough, but because they themselves do not know the true substance of their faith. Bishop Sheen did not issue his famous statement to justify the complacence of those who truly believed and understood the teachings of their faith; he meant it as an exhortation. The answer to his call is the “underground catechesis” that is spreading today. It is an education in the Catholic faith that is personal, thoughtful and most importantly, about sharing the joy of our faith.

Kevin D. Sullivan is a student in Georgetown University’s class of ‘14.

Image via Chris Sloan.

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  • dbd1830

    Great article, Mr. Sullivan. It’s amazing how many people are raised in Catholic families but never receive any substantive education regarding Catholic teachings. I have several friends and relatives who had left the Church based on misunderstandings, but then returned after they learned catechism as adults. Sadly, as demonstrated by many comments here, gullibility and lack of information can lead to anti-Catholic bigotry.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    There is literally no such thing as bigotry where ideas are concerned. Catholicism is an idea. Are there anti-astrologer bigots? Anti-evolution bigots? Kindly spare me your self pity. If your ideas are vain, slippery, and ludicrous, expect to hear about it.

  • Dennis_Moore

    I see “Hail Skins” thinks he isn’t a bully when he responds to a well meaning comment as “vain, slippery and ludicrous”. As with all God haters, the insults they hurl at the religious are actually what they think of themselves. Hopefully Art Monk returns and you won’t act like a drunk in the stands like the drunk bully you are here.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    To clarify, I was calling Catholicism vain, slippery, and ludicrous, not this particular commentor’s post. I took issue with the term “anti-Catholic bigotry,” which as I tried to explain, is absurd on its face. Like many religious types, your contribution to the discussion seems to range from indignation, to woeful use of sarcasm/humor, to the ad homenim. Do you have any thoughts to contribute that don’t concern the Washington Redskins?

  • dbd1830

    So, HailSkins, just to be clear, do you also believe that the term “anti-Muslim bigotry” is absurd on its face? If, like Catholicism, Judaism is an idea, do you believe that there is no such thing as anti-Jewish bigotry?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    That must have sounded a bit more clever when you said it to yourself the first time. Of course the idea of anti-muslim or anti-jewish bigotry would be absurd on its face, because if we’re actually saying what we mean, we’re talking about the doctrines, ideas, dogmas, and histories contained within each of those religious systems. What you meant to ask was what I think about anti-Arab or anti-Semitic bigotry. These are obviously very real, and very awful. You’re trying to couple a person’s ideas with their nationality or race, which I hope I don’t have to point out is a glaring logical fallacy.

  • dbd1830

    Actually, no, there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who aren’t Arab. And there are Arabs who aren’t Muslim. The country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia, not an Arab country. Your lack of understanding just proved my point that misinformation is part of the problem.

  • Rongoklunk

    Many of us have never forgiven the Church for torturing nonbelievers, and/or burning them alive at the stake.
    Think about that. Religious people torturing those who were unable to believe what the Church told them to believe. Why torture? Why the agony of being burnt alive, for simply not believing what they were told?
    The answer has to be that the Church desperately wanted to discourage nonbelief – because nonbelief would ultimately destroy the church. But it is happening now anyway. The church has lost its credibiity because we have science which is slowly showing us that religion got it all wrong. And that’s the big problem for the survival the church. We don’t believe the nonsense anymore. It defies commonsense, and everything that science reveals to us about reality. And religious beliefs are all about fantasy and wishful thinking. And that’s what the church didn’t want us to know – that religion was all made up by ancient people long long ago, in the days of great ignorance. Now we know!

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Actually, I think you just contributed just a bit more to my point. I’m well aware that not all Muslims are Arabs, but the point of your earlier rebuttal was to conflate criticism of religion with some abstract kind of racism, which remains an obvious fallacy. Now you’re backpedaling.

  • dbd1830

    Where did I mention racism in my earlier post? Nowhere.

  • LululemonFanatic

    “Religious people torturing those who were unable to believe what the Church told them to believe.”

    In my experience, this still happens. It’s called CCD.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    This is getting tiring. Should I restate my original point in its simplest form?

    It is impossible to be bigoted towards an idea. You can disagree with it, laugh at it, scorn it, misunderstand it, but you can never be bigoted towards it. It’s an idea, not a person. Catholicism is an idea. Islam is an idea. Judaism is an idea. None of the aforementioned ideas are people. Certain people believe in them, and I try to argue them out of their beliefs. Bigotry only enters into the conversation as a defense mechanism on the religious side.

    Anything in there that you disagree with?

  • coltakashi93

    I thought the recommendations were interesting, but nowhere did I see any responsibility placed on parents to teach their children.

    I would suggest that an essential element of persuading teens and young adults to adopt a religious faith as their own is to persuade them that they are needed to do something significant with their lives, and that they need that knowledge in order to accomplish it.

    Those elements–parental invovlement and a sense of mission–are at the core of the most successful youth religious education program in the US, as determined by a detailed study a couple of years ago: the one conducted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”). Young Mormons ages 18 to 19, men and women, are volunteering to serve two years as missionaries in 150 nations, often going to another country and learning a new language. By the end of 2013 there will be 85,000 of them serving worldwide, and new cohorts will constantly replace those who complete their term of volunteer service.

    Those Mormon youth are making the effort to learn the doctrines of their church because they know they will be called upon to teach those doctrines to strangers they meet. And having the experience of being full time ministers, they are prepared to return home and serve as teachers and leaders in their home congregations. There are no career clergy in the Mormon Church. All the leaders and teachers are unpaid parttiime amateurs, serving as much as 30 hours per week for a term of several years, and then being asked to serve in some other capacity. When they are teenagers, they know that their religious education is not preparation to sit in the pews, but is preparation to be ministers of the gospel to their neighbors and to their own families.

  • LawyerTom1

    I really like the pun about “mass failure” [“I believe this mass failure in religious education…”].

  • nkri401

    Don’t teach me! Bro.

  • nkri401

    Mr. Sullivan,

    As a young man of faith you feel like you have indeed discovered the eternal truth.

    As you get a bit older, you will realize that not much is that new under the sun…

  • Rongoklunk

    Truth is more important than any religion. And the more we know about reality the less sense religion makes. It was OK even a century ago to ‘believe’; even after Darwin it was still respectable to ‘believe’, and a god was a vague possibility. But when science does not recognize supernatural thingies or an afterlife – and where science tells us that death is a certainty for all living things, there’s no point in positing a Godfella or life after death. It is clearly wishful thinking and a denial of death. People hate having their particular faith attacked because there’s an unwritten agreement that for some reason it’s not fair to question a person’s religion. Or his wife. Or his kids. Well I think it is fair, if in fact gods don’t actually exist. And I believe they don’t. After all, our ancestors made-up thousands and thousands of gods, and this tells us that making up gods is a human addiction. And it’s excellent evidence that current gods were made-up too. It’s a very logical conclusion.

  • Postem

    Most of these comments substantiate the second part of Bishop Sheen’s statement.

    “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”

  • leibowde84

    It seems wrong to influence young children to take on your own faith. It seems like you are taking a decision away from them, in that their minds are molded at a very early age to believe what their parents believe. It seems much more in line with what Jesus preached to allow them to come to the faith on their own, instead of being brain-washed. Teach them about your faith, and the faiths of others, and let them decide when they are able. Beyond that you are just forcing faith down their throat.

    And, why can’t people without faith accomplish great and meaningful things? That seems extremely prejudiced against those who don’t believe or see an importance in believing in God.

  • abeisavol2

    I do and so does my wife who converted from being Baptist

  • LululemonFanatic

    To think, until I read that quote I’d always thought I was one-in-a-million. One in a hundred just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  • nkri401

    Indeed, it’s quite a different thing. However, the fact may be closer to the Catholic Church wrongly believing why they are hated. After all the Church offers nothing but love…

  • leibowde84

    Shouldn’t children be able to decide what faith they want to be a part of? Isn’t this choice damaged by shaping their idea of the world from an early age using your own belief system?

  • leibowde84

    What made your wife convert?

  • leibowde84

    They failed to turn over priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors directly to the proper, secular authorities. That is not loving … it is just plain evil.

  • leibowde84

    I agree. It seems weird and illogical that Jesus would care if people believe in him, as long as they lead good, meaningful lives. Right? I bet the writers of the Gospels just added that part in to strengthen their evolving Church.

  • ThomasBaum


    You asked, “Isn’t this choice damaged by shaping their idea of the world from an early age using your own belief system?”

    By this logic, no one could teach anyone about any beliefs, not just those beliefs concerning whether there is a God or there isn’t.

    Do you think that children should be taught nothing except dry, hard, cold facts?

    Do you think that children should never be “corrected” since this correcting might be “tainted” by someone’s beliefs?

    Or do you think that children should only be raised as you see fit?

    Jesus never forced Himself on anyone but it sure seems to be very human for us to force ourselves, in varying degrees, on others.

  • itsthedax

    First off, why do you assume that anyone who isn’t a catholic hates the catholic church? Most people can recognize something as being nonsense without hating it.

  • itsthedax

    Secondly, every single person who’s ever had a religion has been convinced that his was the “one true faith”, and anyone who wasn’t on board with him was evil or misguided. Catholics are no different.

  • Michael Verne

    The precious millennial needs to himself understand one needn’t understand The Faith for it to “work”. I returned, admittedly, for all the selfish reasons and needn’t understand It; I still don’t and probably never will understand.
    Every time a millennial gets on an airplane do they need first to understand aerophysics before embarking? No. I’m sorry but this article was written in the “they aren’t doing enough for us” mood that portends this over sought “generation”, the millennial. Here’s a prayer every millennial reading this article should pray which will yield far more favorable results than some clever meme or peer group meet up, it’s called an act of faith: “Hey God, I know you exist, show me you exist.”

  • Rongoklunk

    He’ll never show. Just like the thousands of other gods he’s man-made. Making up gods is what we do. It’s a human addiction. That’s why nobody ever saw him or any other god. He exists in the mind like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and Humpty Dumpty.

  • Rongoklunk

    Good news from The Pew Research team;
    “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the the US public , and a third of all adults under twenty are religious unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research polling.
    “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all US adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the US public) as well as 33 million people who say they have no religious affiliation (14%)”

    Religion cannot last forever in an educated world.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84 Part II

    You then wrote, “All I’m saying is that “Allah” is not any different than Yahweh in the understanding of Islam.”

    As far as I know, Muslims do not call the god of islam “Yahweh” which translates at least one way as “I AM WHO AM” but call the god of islam “Allah” which is a generic Arabic word meaning the equivalent of God in English.

    Arabic speaking Christians also call the God of Christianity “Allah”, but I would like to point out that the allah of the koran and the Allah of the bible are not one and the same.

    These two differences, Jesus’s Divinity and the Trinitarian Nature of God, are not the only differences concerning God in these two books, also at the very beginning of Judaism with Abraham being the first Jew, there is a discrepancy concerning who Abraham took up the mountain, isn’t there?

    The god of the koran and the God of the bible are not one and the same, as I have already said, one can be true and the other false or vice-versa, both can be false but both can NOT be true.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84 Part I

    Concerning your comment of 9/20/2013 8:57 AM EDT to the original post of 9/17/2013 6:19 PM EDT.

    You wrote, “But, you admit that Islam and Christianity both worship the “God of Abraham” or Yahweh, right?”

    I said that Jesus Is God-Incarnate and that God Is a Trinity, therefore God spoken of in the bible is God of ALL, I clearly wrote that the god of islam is satan since the god of islam denies Jesus’s Divinity which Jesus clearly claimed and was the alleged “blasphemy” charge that the religious leaders of Jesus’s Day brought against Him and yet the god of islam went and claimed Jesus as his prophet even tho, in essence, calling Jesus a liar.

    You then wrote, “That’s all I’m saying. Just that they are referring to the same deity … by their own understanding at least.”

    I do not believe that Muslims think/believe that the god of islam is satan, so Muslims, “by their own understanding”, probably do think/believe that the god of islam is God even tho he is just a godwannabe.

  • charles allan

    The catholic church has about a billion or so members only some of who go to church. The ones that go do about 5 minutes of scripture per Sunday with a few minutes preaching. This would take about 20 years to go through much of the Bible. The priests tell them they dont have to read the Bible privately – like its some kind of add on.
    The Word = the Bible : Scripture = the Bible – when you see these words think of Bible – then see how many times God and Jesus tells you to read the Bible – which is the Sword of the Spirit to defeat Satan and make him flee – using this scripture is what Jesus did in the wilderness. Without the sword of the spirit a Christian will be defenceless against Satan and his duped demons. ” Man cannot live by bread alone but by EVERY word (the WHOLE BIBLE) which cometh from the mouth of God”….. Jesus

    We also need constant prayer in everything we do. Also some Catholics promote the idea that much of the Bible is symbolic – such as Genesis. There has never been more scientific truth that proves the Bible is inerrant in the original Hebrew and Greek. Not one iota will pass away ……..

    The theory of evolution is one of the Devil’s great successes – it does not even have a mechanism and should not be classed as a theory – the Catholic church has allowed this mumbo jumbo of a theory to gain a foothold . Countless people think in order to be able to do science you need to accept Darwinism which is absolute nonsense – science in the Christian era progressed rapidly without the theory.
    Many scientists – believers and unbelievers practice their cutting edge science while rejecting the theory of evolution. Eg – To believe this theory we are told that dino flesh has managed to avoid disintegration for 70 million years.

    The sedimentary layers look exactly as they should if a worldwide Noachin flood had happened. Billions of creatures suddenly encased in water laid sediment which covers most of the world.

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84 Part II

    You then wrote, “So, your description is impossible. If the God of Judaism is Satan since Judaism does not recognize Jesus as being divine, then Jesus would have had to have been praying to Satan as well … but that can’t be.”

    My “description”, I thought was very clear, that the God of the bible, Judaism and Christianity, is God and the god of islam is satan.

    The Jews do not recognize Jesus as a Prophet and neither deny nor affirm the Divinity of Jesus whereas the god of islam denies Jesus’s Divinity, which Jesus clearly affirmed, and then claims Jesus as his prophet.

    Maybe you should reread what I wrote rather than reading into it what you think I wrote.

    You then wrote, “See what I’m saying. If the “God of Islam,” which is the same God referred to in both Christianity and Judaism, is Satan, then the Jewish God would have to be as well, and Jesus would have to have been praying to Satan as well. Right?

    I’ve already answered this but I will add that Jesus clearly said that He was praying to the Father and He also said that He would send the Holy Spirit, here’s the Trinity, that the god of islam claims is not God, the god of islam and the God of the Bible are clearly not One and the same.

    I am curious, do you know if the god of islam ever refer to himself as “Yahweh”?

    Couple questions: Do you think/believe that Jesus is God-Incarnate or merely a prophet”?, Do you think/believe that God Is a Trinity as alluded to in the Old Testament and clearly spoken of in the New Testament or not?

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84 Part I in reply to comment of 8:20am 9-23-13 from post of 6:19pm 9-17-13

    You wrote, “Alright, so here’s my final argument. According to you “the God of Islam” and “the God of Judaism” both are satanic due to their reluctance to recognize Jesus as the Messiah or Divine.”

    I’ve never said that, not even came close to saying that, read what I wrote, I said the God of the bible is God and the god of islam is satan.

    Messiah does not mean Divine but means “chosen by God”, Cyrus was “chosen by God” and not only was he not Divine but he also wasn’t Jewish.

    There have been many Messiahs or Christs, those “chosen by God”, but there has only been One Saviour.

    The Jews, not all, don’t recognize Jesus as prophet or God-Incarnate and this is even foretold whereas the god of islam denies the Incarnation of God and the Trinity but in the process claims Jesus as his prophet even tho Jesus clearly claimed to be Who He Is.

    You then wrote, “You claim that, although Muslims pray to the God of Abraham, which is the same God as referred to in the New and Old Testament, they are, in actuality, praying to Satan disguising himself as the God of Abraham. Do I have this right thus far?”

    satan is not only attempting to disguise “himself as the God of Abraham” but is claiming God, God-Incarnate, as his prophet.

    As Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I AM?”

    As I have also previously wrote, God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof, God is not the egomaniac that many “Christians” seem to think/believe God to be.

  • ThomasBaum

    charles allan

    You wrote, “The theory of evolution is one of the Devil’s great successes – it does not even have a mechanism”

    What do you mean by “mechanism”?

  • ThomasBaum

    leibowde84 Concerning the comments following the post of 6:19pm 9-17-13

    As it is written, “You will speak and they will not hear”.

    You appear to be deaf to what I so clearly and simply stated, whether it is willfully or some other reason, there is something in the bible concerning this, I do not know.

  • leibowde84

    I said nothing of the sort. I merely think that teaching kids your belief system as if it is the correct one is not fair to them. You are limiting them in a very significant and damaging way, imo. It is great to teach kids about faith, but it is essential that not only one belief system is stressed.

  • leibowde84

    When I was a kid, I was partially ingrained by Catholicism. It wasn’t as bad as it was for some of my classmates, as my Dad was Jewish, but it still happened. I was taught by my teachers that Christianity was the only way to go … as if it were fact.

    It wasn’t until college that I finally realized that I didn’t have to trust what Catholicism taught. God gave us a mind and logic to bypass human imperfections.