Students Discuss Catholic Identity

Conference Aims to Determine Why Church Lacks Youth Involvement


Published: February 2, 2011

Students and faculty gathered to examine the shrinking number of 20-somethings identifying with the Catholic Church during a two-day conference titled, “Lost? Twenty-Somethings and the Church.” The conference was held on Jan. 28 and 29, hosted by Fordham’s Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, and examined “the lives of young adults and their relationship to the Catholic Church—or lack thereof.” James Davidson, professor emeritus of sociology at Purdue University, identified the amount of youth in the Church as a top concern, saying it is “hemorrhaging members” and lacking involvement.

“They distinguish between the Catholic faith, which they identify with, and the Catholic Church, which they are less attached to,” Davidson said.

He suggested that social factors that encourage religious involvement, like marriage, have decreased since the first half of the 20th century. He also pointed out that Catholics in the early 1900s viewed the Church as a refuge. Rev. James Martin, S.J., culture editor of America Magazine, stressed the voluntary attitude among young people, saying, “20-somethings may find [Catholicism] useful, but only to the extent that it makes them feel closer to God.”

Others thought that shrinking numbers might be caused by a lack of knowledge. Tami Schmitz, assistant director of spirituality at Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame, asked, “How can we expect them to fully participate in something they know so little about?”

Rev. Robert Beloin, director of the Catholic Center at Yale University, agreed, saying, “They’re almost illiterate in all things Catholic.” Joe Nuzzi, a pastoral associate at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Manhattan, agreed that “we are dealing with an un-catechized generation,” but also said that “people drift away from the Church because when they’re there, they’re not inspired.”

Martin’s presentation identified social justice and community as concepts that draw young people, and teachings on homosexuality and the hierarchy as things that repel them. Speakers like Nuzzi and Davidson urged an emphasis on core issues of faith, rather than rigid guidelines, which Davidson called “peripheral.” Shmitz agreed with this, saying, “If we send them the message that only saints and the perfect are welcome at the table, there will be a few missing spots at the table of the Lord.”

Among Fordham students, there were varied opinions about the positive offerings of the Catholic Church. Robert Najdek, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, said that Catholicism “creates a brotherhood among different peoples.” For non-Catholic Mathew Rodriguez, FCLC ’11, the Jesuit “emphasis on social action, social justice and education” stands out.

Alumnus Brent Nycz, FCLC ’09 and also a non-Catholic, said of the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist, “To be able to say that you are partaking from Jesus’s body and blood… is both a very powerful experience and also an experience that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

As for criticisms about the Church, students cited outdated teachings and a masculine bias as negative aspects of the Church. “That there seems to be no place for women or gays in the Church is huge. We’re talking about over 50 percent of the world that may not have a place in its pews,” Rodriguez said.

Stephanie Torres, FCLC ’11, criticized the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. “I have seen too much judgment and hate come from members of the Catholic community. That is not something I want to be a part of.” Torres, a former Catholic, also mentioned the place of women in the Church, adding, “If Catholicism is for everyone, why can’t women become clergy members?”

Najdek, who no longer fully considers himself a Catholic, pointed to misplaced emphases from the Church, saying, “Kindness, charity, and understanding have to trump abstract moral teachings. The Church too often does not understand this and creates enemies because of it.” He also said that Catholicism is “too closed, too patriarchal, and… focuses too much on giving money to the Church and attending services.”

Melissa Cidade, a speaker at the conference and a research assistant at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, suggested that there has been a shift in Catholic identity and in what people think it means to be a good Catholic.

Students had varying opinions about this as well. Nycz said, “In order to call yourself a ‘good’ Catholic, you should most likely adhere to the teachings professed by the Catholic Church.”

Torres wasn’t sure, but said, “A religion teacher in high school once told me that you could not be considered a good Catholic if you do not attend church every week.”

Najdek said, “To be a good Catholic one has to continually look out for injustice in one’s own life, community and the world, and act on it.”

Rodriguez responded similarly, saying, “Someone who is Catholic should advocate for that which Jesus would advocate for—a preferential option for the poor, an emphasis on community, etc.”

The conference concluded with more questions than answers, but with an acknowledgement that the Catholic Church is losing active members and communication should be increased.

Lisa Cataldo, assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Fordham university, encouraged young people to be open about their needs and objections, but cautioned at how difficult that can be, saying, “It costs the disapproval and perhaps rejection of those who want things to stay the same, and that’s costly and challenging.”