COLUMN: Catholic Church struggles to attract young people because of hateful messsaging

Last year at my parent’s parish – where I grew up in – held a meeting about church attendance. In this meeting, they discussed a pertinent topic that church officials have been concerned about: getting young people into church.

Parishioners brought up different ideas; “New technology,” one said. “More interaction, or Socratic Seminar style,” said another. 

To be blunt, these ideas are crap. 

These ideas do not get to the root of the issue, one that I myself have wrestled with since I was a young teen.  My Confirmation Sacrament workbook said that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was “against natural law”, and that members of the LGBTQ+ community were required by Catholic morals to remain abstinent. 

Days before reading this chapter of the book, my best friend had come out to me as bisexual. This was my first clue – these pieces of my life, of my worldview, of values of love, acceptance and progressiveness that my parents had taught me did not fit in with the values Catholicism instilled.

American Catholicism is in big trouble. In 1987, 26% of Catholics were between the ages of 18-29. In 2014, that number plummeted to 17%. Even for ages 30-49, the percentage of Catholics had dropped with only the 50 and older age group increasing.

Gen Z and young people are switching up American society. A Gallup poll from 2022 found that more than 20% of Gen Z identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and more than two-thirds of Gen Z are “extremely concerned” about LGBTQ+ rights. 

Catholic Church attendance is down to 39%, and American Catholicism is not helping itself. The Chicago archdiocese has started the Renew My Church initiative, which is combining parishes, cutting staff, and may eventually close churches due to attendance. 

Reproductive rights are a current major issue in the American political sphere, especially among Gen Z. According to The Hill, 72% of 18-29 year-olds believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

Five of the justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, four of which, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito are conservatives. These four, along with Neil Gorsuch who was raised Catholic, decided on the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case which overturned the 1972 Roe v. Wade ruling. 

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who announced her retirement, was denied Communion by her home Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone because of her support for reproductive rights. 

I stopped going to my home parish. Easter was the last time I went, and was probably my last time for the foreseeable future. 

My hometown church had groups that would oppose reproductive rights, and the Knights of Columbus group once advertised themselves to the congregation as standing up to “keep marriage between a man and a woman.” 

I do not feel at peace there, I do not feel spiritual or whole. I feel angry. My body, my sexuality, my existence as a woman is disrespected. I felt disconnected, that I try to live my life with love, kindness, respect and open mindedness and yet I was surrounded by close-minded people. 

Several months ago, I went back to church. Not to my hometown, but to a church in Chicago. I did my research first. “What types of groups do they have, where does their money go, are they welcoming and inviting, or closed off and close minded?” I asked.

I still struggle with it. I think about the harm my faith has caused to women, to the LGBTQ+ community, to people all over the world. I think of how I am entering a future where I may see medicine, autonomy and life-saving procedures  unavailable – and that people I deeply care about will not be able to marry because of those they love.

I stayed in my faith in spite of this. For me, leaving meant that the old ideology wins. I hope that in staying, I can change it for the better, and make my faith one that makes the world better, more equitable.