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The New Pew Findings, Catholic Teens, and the Idol of Success

September 18, 2020


The Pew Research Center released a new report entitled “US Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously, Attend Services Together and Enjoy Family Rituals.” But the survey also showed that Catholic US teenagers “mirror their peers on religious trends.” This is not surprising given that American Catholics, while ethnically diverse, tend to share the values and behaviors of most Americans. And given that America is, in a secularized sort of way, a post-Christian society, it is not at all surprising to find US Catholic teens mirroring their peers on religious trends. But before diving into a cultural analysis of what is potentially behind the latest report, let’s look at the findings of the study itself. 

I encourage you to take a look at the full survey, but for my purposes I want to only focus on a few parts. Catholic News Agency had a nice summary of the report, which stated: 

Of the teenage children of Catholic parents, 81% of them identify as Catholic but 15% are religiously-unaffiliated.

Teens [in general] are nearly half as likely as their religious parents to say that religion is very important in their lives, with 43% of parents answering that way to only 24% of teens. Of parents who said religion is “very important” in their life, only 45% of their teens answered the same, and 41% of the teens said religion was “somewhat important” to them.

However, in households where parents say religion is not important to them, their teenagers are far more likely to hold the same religious priorities. Among parents who said religion was “not too important” or “not at all important” to them, 82% of their teenage children answered the same.

The findings on Catholics are interesting and useful for those working in evangelization. Only 51% of Catholic parents said it was very important to raise their children in their religion. It is not as if Catholic parents are not sending Catholic teens to religious education programs. Catholic teens are just as likely to have been in religious education programs as Protestant teens, but of those Catholics that said they attend, 43% said they attend rarely or do not go any more. 

Also, Catholic US teenagers reflected US teenager trends more closely than their evangelical peers. For example, when asked if they believe in God with absolute certainty, 71% of evangelical teenagers answer “yes” compared to only 45% of Catholic teens. The US trend was 40%. That is a big difference between evangelical and Catholic teens on the fundamental question of God. 

But the next issue is something that I’d like to focus on because it answers the question of values and behavior. The survey found that Catholic parents are more likely than Protestant parents to say that it is very important that their teenager goes to college (83% to 66%) and that their teenager becomes financially successful (75% to 67%). I have direct experience with this. 

As a teacher, you learn a lot about what the parents of your students value, and my experience might help us better understand the response. When I started teaching I heard the results of a school survey on the parents’ top reasons for sending their kids to the Catholic school. It had little to do with the school’s Catholic identity. Instead, the top reasons were the school’s academic excellence, particularly the fine arts and sports programs, and its safe environment. I came to learn that this was no exception for Catholic high schools. Many established Catholic high schools in older US dioceses are known to be nominally Catholic. They’re esteemed as good private schools with religion class tacked on. Perhaps a Catholic identity permeates the school but in a very diluted way. As a young, enthusiastic theology teacher, I was hoping to change that, but soon realized that nothing would change unless the parents wanted it to.

In addition to the survey, parent-teacher conferences offered me great insight into what the parents’ valued. All the parents were kind, loving people, but I noticed how interested they were in their children’s success in math and science classes—much less so in theology. As a competitive guy, I got a bit jealous, wondering why they weren’t showing up, especially when a lot of kids were doing poorly in my class. I used to wander the halls throwing my hands up in the air when I saw the lines forming to visit the science and math teachers. Perhaps religion wasn’t that important because it was not necessary for college preparation and financial success?

But the few discussions that I did have with parents were very revealing. They confirmed to me that most Catholics’ perception of the faith is equivalent to what Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith calls Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Smith summarizes the basic tenets of MTD as follows: 

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over life on earth. 
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. 

Let’s focus on #3. All parents want their kids to be happy and feel good about themselves. But what in particular do they think happiness consists in? The survey seems to suggest college and financial success is the answer. But what is the right answer? God alone. The Catechism teaches that “true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement—however beneficial it may be—such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone” (CCC 1723). Then the Catechism quotes St. John Henry Newman, and I think it is relevant to our times: 

All bow down before wealth. Wealth is that to which the multitude of men pay an instinctive homage. They measure happiness by wealth; and by wealth they measure respectability. . . . It is a homage resulting from a profound faith . . . that with wealth he may do all things. Wealth is one idol of the day and notoriety is a second. . . . Notoriety, or the making of a noise in the world—it may be called “newspaper fame”—has come to be considered a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration.

Preach it, Newman! He perfectly describes the idol of our age. Perhaps this was always so, but now it seems to have enticed everyone. When Bishop Barron speaks at prestigious corporations like Google and Amazon, or when he gives college commencement addresses, he talks about God alone satisfying the hunger of the human heart. Many Catholic parents probably hope that their children will one day work for a prestigious company like Google or graduate from an Ivy League school, but they need to realize that no matter the success their children might have, they will not be happy until they have found the ultimate good of God himself. If we want to reverse the trend, perhaps the best place to start (besides prayer) is by talking about the hunger of the human heart for God alone. 

Trust me, it is easy to find people who are not satisfied. Parents need to hear that everything that the world can give will not satisfy. Make that clear, and perhaps Catholic parents will desire above all things the holiness of Christ for their children just as much, or more, than academic and financial success.