What Catholics need to learn from this depressing Pew survey

The past few years have been bleak for Catholics. It’s no secret that many people have left the Church as part of the larger exodus from organized religion.

It’s worth reading this Pew survey that documents why people are unaffiliated with religion:

– “I just basically stopped going to church when I went to college and never picked it back up. I was never super religious.”

– “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion.”

– “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”

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Here are 4 immediate steps the Church can take to fix the problem:

1.) Appeal to people’s intellectual curiosity. One of the most disturbing trends is that college students and people with advanced degrees are less likely to be religious. Someone told Pew that “rational thought makes religion go out the window.”

A non-Catholic friend once confessed that he was surprised by the sheer intelligence of a priest he knew. He was not expecting the priest to have so many advanced degrees (they do spend years studying philosophy, after all.)

It’s unfortunately a stereotype that many people have about Catholicism. And based on the survey, this seems to be an especially big problem for younger Catholics.

The key isn’t necessarily finding a way to keep their attention at the beginning of college, but rather sparking a compelling spiritual and intellectual curiosity in the formative years.

I’ve often found that non-Catholics and even atheist friends are immensely interested in religion, mainly because it deals with life’s big unanswered questions. Why not peak young people’s intellectual curiosity by challenging them to think deeply about those big questions?

After all, how many believers go through everyday life without marveling at it all? Only in fleeting moments do many of us take the time to think introspectively about God and our purpose in life.

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2.) Emphasize compatibility between religion and science. A Catholic priest proposed the Big Bang theory. A Catholic friar is considered the founder of modern genetics. The Vatican houses one of the world’s oldest astronomical research institutions.

It’s likely that most Catholics have never heard this before. Many have learned about how poorly Galileo was treated by the Church in his day and unfortunately conclude that dogma stands in contrast to science, reason and social progress.

This was especially evident when Pope Francis shocked the American press by saying that evolution was not incompatible with the creation story, something the Church has taught for decades.

So if science explains how life came to be, perhaps religion explains why. Taken together, it’s a beautiful concept that helps uncover the mysteries of the natural world while providing a purpose for life.

3.) Pile on more spirituality. We all know a millennial who says they were raised Catholic, but now they’re “spiritual, not religious.”

It’s something Catholics need to take seriously. The Church has a rich spiritual tradition in Ignatian Spirituality, which has been providing fulfillment for people over the past 500 years. But frankly, it’s not well-advertised (this lifelong Catholic didn’t discover it until after college.)

The Church is filled with religious orders and movements that focus on spirituality, which could provide useful tips to young people who feel lost.

The trick, however, is to make the connection between spirituality and religion. They need to see that organized religion can provide the resources and community to achieve a more fulfilling spiritual life. (After all, even Olympic gold medalists need coaches. We all do.)

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4.) Practice what you preach. No one likes a hypocrite. And in the age of the Internet, any terrible misdeed by a priest or nun is too sensational for media outlets to pass up.

One complaint in the Pew survey was that too many Christians were “doing Un-Christian things.” Perhaps these respondents have a simplistic view of what a Christian is — when the truth is that we’re all damaged somehow, but we’re all trying.

But Catholics are ambassadors for their faith. Their actions matter.