Why young people and women leave the Church, and how to bring them back

The first step to bringing people back into the community of the Church will always be an invitation, offered in the context of a relationship

Regina Trovino and Daniela Haddad pray before the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

At a recent Sunday Mass, the priest preached on the Gospel passage where Jesus beckons to his soon-to-be disciples: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 

The priest then asked us to consider the following questions: What kind of “bait” do I use to draw people to Jesus? Do I attract people to the Faith by the way I live? By how I speak? Do I throw stones at those who are approaching, only to scare them away?

Apart from prompting my own examination of conscience, his questions made me think of two recent surveys conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) with the aim of better understanding the stories, experiences, behavior and attitudes of baptized Catholics. 

The first survey, commissioned by America Media, included responses from more than 1,500 American women who self-identify as Catholic. According to Father Matt Malone, SJ, editor-in-chief of America Media, the survey was “but one response” of the Jesuit’s desire to “listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women.”  

The second survey, commissioned by Saint Mary’s Press, was a qualitative survey of young, disaffiliated Catholics — a group previously examined in the 2015 Pew Research Center survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The folks at Saint Mary’s wanted to meet the actual persons behind the Pew statistics and listen to their stories. The result was “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” 

Editors at America Media published a series of essays and articles online before the print edition, detailing the findings they found most significant. The largest takeaway was that the majority of respondents, from differing generations, rarely, if ever, attend Mass on Sundays. 

Many of these same women do not participate in any sacraments, social ministries or faith communities. It also happens that many of these respondents support initiatives or ideas at odds with the Church’s teaching, particularly those related to human sexuality and marriage, along with beliefs and practices related to ordinated ministry. 

Within minutes of the survey’s publication, a flurry of online commentary related to the last point erupted. On the one hand was the predictable cheer, “Change the Church’s teaching!” 

But the other cheer made me wince as much, if not more. That was the chorus that went something like this: “Of course women who don’t attend Mass don’t subscribe to Church teaching. Because the survey results do not reflect Church teaching, the results are not relevant or helpful to the Church.” 

As I kept scrolling, my fear kept increasing that those who have strayed would perceive an attitude of: “Well, we don’t want you anyway.” 

If people aren’t coming into our church buildings, then the Church needs to go out to them, the Holy Father says. This idea is sure to come up during the discussions of the upcoming meeting of the Synod on Young People, Vocation, and Discernment, a meeting of the world’s bishops that Pope Francis has called to be held at the Vatican this October. 

The risk with dismissing the results of these surveys is grave. While they detail many reasons why people stay away — their wounds, their experience of hypocrisy, their rejection of Church teaching or simply their intense apathy — the way to help bring them back is also buried in the same pages.  

The first step to bringing people back into the community of the Church will always be an invitation, offered in the context of a relationship. And that relationship will always require a willingness to sit with someone and listen to his or her experience and personal history. 

The authors of “Going, Going, Gone” offer a few pointed questions to those responsible for the pastoral care of young people: Do we know who the disaffiliated are, and the depths of their life stories? Do we know them by name? Do we miss these individuals now that they are gone? 

Full story at Angelus.


  1. I’m surprised anyone believes in the Gospel anymore. Today big tech provides answers and comforts that people seek. No coincidence that millennials, the most tech-saturated generation in history, are also the least religious. How can Catholicism compete with what big tech offers to make life better? Catholicism seems outdated, irrelevant, pointless, useless. Big tech is current, cool, informative, purposeful and useful. Where the rubber meets the road, big tech improves people’s lives and makes them happy; Catholicism struggles to show how it contributes anything similar. Faith is pie in the sky; tech is here and now and real.

    • Anon, you obvious do not believe so what are you doing here. The purpose of the the Church is not about the here and now but the here after. You can bow to your new gods of technology, it will not stand before Christ the Judge.

      • It’s not clear that Anonymous isn’t a believer. I see him/her/zir expressing dismay and grief that the Church isn’t doing a good job of addressing the needs of people in light of what the world is offering.

        Bsides, by your criterion that the Church isn’t about here and now but about the afterlife, I think many American bishops and possibly even the Pope might be considered by you not to be believers. What do they spend the bulk of their time talking about and encouraging? Answer: worldly matters.

        Anonymous might have a better point than you give him/her/zir credit for.

        • Anon you have got that right I do not believe that most of American hierarchy have Faith they think the Church is an NGO

    • As much as I disagree with the ultimate implications of this comment, it concisely expresses the huge problem of modern evangelization. Are you listening, bishops? What does Catholicism offer people that they should take the Church seriously? That they should attend Mass? That they should read and pray the Bible? We don’t need the Church to call Congress about DACA. I don’t hear anything from the pulpit nor from bishops about holiness or salvation. All I hear is the Church being a left-wing NGO and preaching “luv”. Anonymous is right about this: if the Church is just a NGO, then tech offers more hope than the Church does.

    • Steve Seitz says:

      Big Tech offers much but it also takes away much. It offers a plethora of social connections but little authentic, human contact. It destroys boredom but it also destroys solitude. While truth and wisdom can be found there, these things are usually drowned out by other less meaningful stuff and trivialities. Meaning can’t be found there.

      In short, it makes us less human and more neurotic. Within this backdrop, Catholicism shines like a bright beacon. Which would you choose.

    • Truth-seeker says:

      Anonymous, if you ARE Catholic, don’t stay in the Church one second later than you have to.

      • Anonymous says:

        Truth-seeker, why would you say such a thing? Do you not believe the Catholic Faith?
        I think you misunderstood what the 1st anonymous poster said. It was a social commentary.

  2. For better or worse, the Catholic Church holds that there is a stained glass ceiling for women. A lot of young women wonder WHY. What about the young men who also leave?

    • mike m,
      I’m assuming that you’re talking about the charism of Holy Orders, and I reply not because I doubt your words but because this issue stems from the result of sin.

      God is the perfection of love. Flowing from this perfection is a profound humility. God stands before His creation in humility. Consequently, God calls his Church not to be of the world which grabs for forums of pride and power . . . but to be humble and meek.

      I don’t wish to trivialize any reason for someone leaving the Church, but if someone leaves the Church because of this, their hearts were never asking the right questions to begin with.

  3. Anonymous-2 says:

    The “purpose of the Church” is precisely the “here and now” (cf. Mt 25:35-45).

  4. Anonymous is on to something. Her observations are cogent to the decline of religiosity in general and Christianity in particular. While technology may fill our time and provide entertainment; technology does not provide answers to life’s existential questions. Really, our only hope is to attract new believers by living authentic Christian lives.

  5. Anne T. E. says:

    I find that many young people leave the Church because they are confused and looking for the truth. I know I did. The father in the story of the Prodigal Son, did not go out searching for his son because he knew that some need to learn the hard way, and some people do not change until they hit bottom and grow up, if they ever do. All we can do is do our best, turn them over to God and pray for them. I know one reason I returned was because of a good sister (nun) of Italian descent who prayed for me, even though I am not Italian.

  6. Keith Petersen says:

    Christ: If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever.
    Youth: But is it entertaining?

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