Why Do Catholic Children Leave the Faith? (Mass Exodus)

Why do children raised in good Catholic families today, leave or otherwise stop being part of the Church? This questions has a special poignancy when it comes to those who were raised with the Latin Mass. I shall propose some answers below. But first of all we need to address certain studies of why people leave the faith.

Last week, I referred to how the unique Catholic culture had started to disappear, with increasing speed, after Vatican II. It was, I suggest, that religious culture which had been the magic ingredient which had kept Catholicism together after the Enlightenment. It was that culture which led Protestants to say that Catholics had been brainwashed. The term “brainwashing” is overused, but the phenomenon of suggestibility is a universal human phenomenon, and should not be under-estimated. As Bullivant points out, ideas obtain their greatest force when everyone shares them, and they completely govern how one sees the world (246). Such ideas are so prevalent that I might say the main problem with the notion that people today are brainwashed is the assumption that people have independent brains: it takes many years of self-examination to be able to think for oneself. Most people speak in clichés: ready made phrases they have picked up.

Now, to an extent, this is utterly natural, necessary, and even good. Children are made, I suggest, to be suggestible. They simply do not have the mental equipment to be able to logically and rationally consider matters by themselves. This feature enables parents to educate their children: the task is hard enough as it is, but without natural suggestibility, it would be even harder. One good result of this feature is the fact that one study in the UK found that if both parents practise the faith, there is a one in two chance that the children will too. If only one does, the rate of fidelity is one in five, and if neither does, it blows out to one in forty (52). Even more significant is the fact added later on, that the percentage of faith retention is higher when the parents not only profess but also practise their faith (152). I have seen some very sad cases of where zealous but unwise parents actually pushed their children away from the faith by their excessive and unbalanced rages. When people awaken to the fact that someone is a hypocrite, they invariably dislike this, and react against it. If one wishes to make the faith attractive to one’s children, keep your temper and control your tongue: act like a good Catholic.

Now, if suggestibility in children is natural, then so too is self-assertion as one grows older (at least to our fallen human nature). God has made us to be individual. So we have to discover our own paths. I sometimes wonder if it is not to be expected that the more complete the child’s suggestibility, the more powerful the adolescent rebellion. This may account for the fact that there are so many “family tension dropouts” from the faith, teenagers and young adults who often are asserting their own individuality and personalities in one of the most powerful ways they know: asserting their independence from the family religion (60). I think that this works together with the reaction against hypocrisy noted in the paragraph above.

Bullivant says that some of these young adults, accounted as “rebels” actually have no real argument with the Church, but simply stop going when the hand of parental pressure is lifted, e.g. when they move out of home, and is, I think correct, to think of them as being “weary dropouts” from the faith more than anything else (60-61). After all, it needs a specific impulse to make you get out of bed early on a cold morning, do without a slow comfortable breakfast, and make your way to a church for an hour or so. Both categories, the rebels and the weary, may enunciate criticisms of the faith, but these are often rationalisations of a course of behaviour taken for other reasons (61).

Studies have also identified other notional classes of dropouts, e.g. “lifestyle,” and “spiritual need” dropouts. As Bullivant notes, it is often hard to distinguish these from the other two classes, and the decision is often subjective (61-62). What I found most interesting was his comments on the fifth and final group, the “antichange dropouts,” who are protesting against the post-Vatican II changes. Even in 1979 and 1980, ten years after the change to the liturgy, the changes had a “long tail of turbulence” trailing behind them (63).

In a major error, the studies had specifically decided not to begin before 1979 in order not to include those who had left when the change was greatest (63). In one stroke, they excluded what anyone who takes seriously the Council’s call for change will have seen is the most important question of all: what was the effect of the very fact of change, and especially, of such wide-ranging and radical change?

I think that a sound study would at least explore the possibility that this last question impacted upon all the others: just at the age when adolescents may long for something of permanent value during all the changes they are going through, they were hit with changes which, as I proposed last week, meant not only that everything could change (which is what Bullivant comments on), but that the changes were being directed by people who were making it up as they went along, and knew no more than the next person.

This is, I think, quite important. The proponents of on-going change often look down on conservative and traditionalist Catholics as unafraid of change. But, not all change is to be welcomed, and sometimes it is to be feared (e.g. the Maoist “Cultural Revolution”). First of all, there are degrees of change. A certain degree of change in temperature, diet, or air can be tolerated, but not too much. Then, there is the related question of the rate or speed of change. This factor works with that of the degree of change: too much too quickly is even worse than too much over a long period. To put it another way, if there is too much change, no matter how long a time is allowed, it is still too fast. Then there is a third issue, the quality of the change. If you change your diet by excluding trans-fats, that is a good change. If you change it by making it higher in those fats, it is a bad change. The fourth matter is the way the change is introduced: I remember quite clearly being told that the Church was making these changes to meet the people, but 90% of the people who were speaking about the changes were against them, or at best indifferent. When they spoke up, they were told to shut up and obey. So which was it, a concerned and loving Church meeting its children where they were, or an authoritarian regime changing direction?

We can now return to where we began this week: why do children who have been formed in the Latin Mass often abandon the faith altogether? I think the answer is that the Church as a whole embodies the culture they are leaving. It is not just a question of this rite or that rite: it is that the Church still represents authority, and so it still a good target for youth seeking to assert its own identity. The Latin Mass alone cannot reach a child’s heart and remake it: an entire spiritual culture with good role models of the traditional faith is needed for that. And that has been laid waste in the Western world.

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