August 2014 Evangelization Exchange – Book Review

Christian Smith Book Review, Part 2

By Rev. Frank DeSiano, CSP


Read Part 1

This book continues studies that Christian Smith and his associates have done on Catholic youth. It traces youth, previously studied as teens, into “emerging adulthood”-the ages of 18-23. Of course, it is chuck full of information that everyone dealing with youth and young-adults will want to think about. But it also represents a fairly distinct slice of life when young people are undergoing significant change in their identities.

It’s pretty clear, looking at this seven year slice of life, that a lot of Catholic youth enter a fairly amorphous stage. On the one hand, the good news, is that there is a stabilizing of Catholics maintaining their identity as Catholics. We are not witnessing a total downward spiral. “This overall stability is important because it challenges the dominant “decline narrative” of some studies of Catholic young people, at least when referring to the time period since the early 1970s (p.50).” On the other hand, when it comes to religious practice, Catholic youth show the lowest level of religious participation compared to Protestants.

Some of this reveals the difficulty of actually studying groups by social metrics. Near the end of the book, in fact, Smith, et al., have to resort to their own experience of young Catholics at Notre Dame, some of whom display a very strong, committed, Catholicism worth of the category “Devout.” One has to ask groups to respond to questions that put them into categories depending on their responses. It’s not always an easy fit. The authors even employ, for the central conclusions of the book, a method that allows them to cluster kinds of responses in order to get a more accurate read of the group they are studying.

If Catholics do not go to Mass, for example, but pray regularly, have religious experiences, and even occasionally read the Bible, what category fits? We watch the authors parsing data this way and that if only to get at a viable description of religious practice, and the religious reality, of this age group. Obviously with such a decline in Mass attendance now widely acknowledged among almost all younger groups of Catholics, using that as a thermometer would lead one to exclude whole pieces of the younger population, thereby skewering the picture.

Another disjuncture between this population and Catholic measurements revolves around sexuality. “A basic incongruence exists between the central assumptions and values of emerging adult culture and those of the Catholic Church. Many of the teenagers we interviewed in our first wave of data collection agreed with the Church’s teaching against sex outside of marriage; but five years later, by wave three, when they had entered emerging adulthood, almost none still held this view (p. 118).” How Catholics maintain a sense of identity, and religiosity, in these age groups, given the way broader culture diverges from aspects of Catholic faith, can be seen as a sub-theme in this book.

The writing team finds three factors which converge in the transmission of faith from one generation to the next, when looking at this seven-year slice of Catholic youth: 1) how active parents are in the practice of their own faith; 2) whether young Catholics develop an “internalized belief system” that connects their lives to God; and 3) living faith through some kind of external practice—if not weekly Mass, then bible reading, or retreats, or even religious education (p. 178).” This summary of data should both frighten us, and clarify things.

Obviously, if religiously-practicing parents are a key to the transmission of a Catholic faith identity among the young, and if younger generations are tending to practice less, then this does not bode well for the future. It gives us a picture of an ever-more-gradual cultural Catholicism which is not penetrating the hearts of younger Catholics. On the other hand, if we know that the faith of parents is a clear factor in the future living of faith in their children, then this gives us a very clear direction for the future: above and beyond any religious education classes, we have to crusade (yes, a deliberately provocative word) for families in our Catholic methodology. Things catechetical need to be shaped toward evangelizing families.

A final chapter deals with Catholic High Schools where some positive effects might be gleaned, but not in an overwhelming way. Again, the variables of who goes to Catholic High School in the first place (i.e. whether they are already the more committed Catholics), and what constitutes enough religious practice, keep weighing on any conclusions. P. 232: “…[T]he effects of attending a Catholic high school and belonging to a youth group on religious faith and practice in emerging adulthood are mixed, modest, and a bit complicated.”

My sense of how fluid life and religious identity seems to be among younger generations makes me want to see what Christian Smith and his associates will find seven years further out. Establishing a religious identity goes in tandem with other markers of identity which come a little later in the lives of modern people: marriage, career, buying a house, and having children. All of this is a function of the new modern world that has been emerging for over a century: away from an agrarian world of ethnically organized people into an urban world shaped by technology and free association. We might all pine for the prior one, but we are called to evangelize in the latter.