What do we do about the fleeing 'nones'?

I grew up in a family of seven kids, which I considered a mid-sized Catholic brood. I knew families that could field entire baseball and even football teams. As a kid, I kept score of such matters and felt Mom and Dad were lagging.

I keep a different kind of score these days. I still ask folks how many kids or siblings they have. Then I ask how many remain Catholic. It’s often a more sobering tally.

Which explains why a recent report from the Pew Research Center caught my attention. Pew has been tracking the growth of the “nones,” those who profess no religious affiliation. America seems to be having a bumper crop of “nones,” and the result is that the numbers of church-affiliated Americans are shrinking.

According to Pew, the number of people who identify as having no particular religious affiliation jumped from 17% to 26% in 10 years. That’s more than a 50% increase.

It is cold comfort to know that atheism is not necessarily benefiting from this shift. The number of people claiming to be atheist did double, but only from 2% to 4%.

What seems to be happening is that people might still call themselves "spiritual" or “spiritually minded,” but they aren’t going to services, and they are telling pollsters that they are “nothing in particular.”

If the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, we might be having an outbreak of indifference in the realm of institutional religion. It is even impacting groups that traditionally have high rates of religious observance, such as Hispanics and African-Americans.

Understanding what this shift means is perhaps more difficult. Some experts are linking the disaffection with religion to the disaffection with politics. It is certainly true, and not just for Catholics, that we are in an age of deep institutional mistrust. Leaders, religious or political, are accused of hypocrisy or prejudice or being out of touch.

At a recent panel on “nones” at Fordham University, speakers noted that the right/left divide and the growing polarization in both religion and politics is turning people off. People who feel they don’t belong, disengage. “The pews and the ballot box have a lot in common,” said one speaker.

Catholic leaders are aware of the problem. At last June’s meeting of the U.S. bishops, Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles painted a dramatic picture of the growing number of Catholics who are becoming “nones.” He told them that 50% of Catholics under the age of 30 have left the Church.

“Half the kids that we baptized and confirmed in the last 30 years are now ex-Catholics or unaffiliated,” he said, and “one out of six millennials in the U.S is now a former Catholic.”

This checks with my informal family surveys. Families are often smaller, but if 50% of your kids are still practicing Catholics, that seems about average.

What’s to be done about this is the increasingly urgent question. Bishop Barron will be making a presentation on this topic when the bishops gather in November, but there does not seem to be one silver bullet.

There might be a silver lining, however. Many people are spiritually hungry. An intellectually rigorous and engaging presentation of the faith might work for some. A witness that is both humble and constructive might engage others. Authenticity counts for a lot.

As parents know, there are no guarantees. Living the faith, encouraging the faith, teaching the faith is what we must do. Then we leave it up to God. And as every parent knows, that can be the hardest of all.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].