When kids enter their teen years they often become more peer-connected than parent-connected. They may talk to their parents less and their social life often begins to be centered more on friends rather than family. For the parent this may add a new and uncomfortable air of mystery surrounding their children’s lives that they have never experienced before.
Survey researchers often find teenagers just as mysterious as we rarely have the opportunity to interview people under the age of 18. This is unfortunate as much of the “churning” of religious identity and behavior begins in the teen years. As a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found, “Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18” (...some of them return to the faith later in life). Recently, thanks to the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) we got the chance to interview teens about their religious faith in a national survey. The overall study focused on interest in vocations. A total of 1,609 respondents were interviewed (English and Spanish) in May and June 2012. Of this sample, 677 respondents were ages 14 to 17.
If you are a Catholic parent of a teenager the study indicates that the first thing you might want to ask your child is if they consider themselves to be Catholic. Although all of the teens we interviewed had Catholic parents or a Catholic parent, some did not share this faith (...parents were presented with information about the vocations study and asked to give permission for their teen to respond. Presumably all or most these parents are raising their children as Catholic). As the figure below shows, only three in four of all teens interviewed (75%) self-identified as Catholic. Twelve percent said they did not have a religious affiliation, 6% indicated that they were affiliated with a Protestant denomination, and 7% noted an affiliation with some other religion.
Ninety-two percent of the teens with two Catholic parents self-identified their faith as Catholic (Overall, 76% percent of the teens indicated they reside in a household with two Catholic parents). Only 55% of those with one Catholic parent self-identified their faith as Catholic. Thus, some teens may be adopting the affiliation of a non-Catholic parent. It is also the case that as they become more peer-connected they may be attending services or religious programs with friends of other faiths and this may alter their religious identities. Some are “falling away” from religion generally and losing any affiliation.
All of the results presented from this point on isolate only those respondents who are ages 14 to 17 and who self-identify their religion as Catholic. This includes a total of 503 respondents resulting in a margin of error of ±4.4 percentage points for this group.
Most Catholic teens report that they were baptized as infants (94%). Five percent indicated they entered the Church as a child and 2% as a teen. Sixteen percent indicated that they have only celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism. Twenty-two percent said that they have also celebrated their First Communion (Note: some of the younger teens may not be of an age where they could receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in their diocese). Many, 62%, reported that they have celebrated Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. Female teens are more likely than male teens to indicate they have celebrated their First Communion or Confirmation.
Eighteen percent report that they have been enrolled in a Catholic school and parish-based religious education classes at some point. The largest group, 44% said they have been enrolled in parish-based religious education only. Fourteen percent indicated enrollment in a Catholic school without having ever been enrolled in a parish-based religious education program. Thus, about one in four Catholic teens (24%) said they have never been enrolled in a Catholic school or a parish-based religious education program.
Catholic teens are a bit less likely than all adult Catholics to say they “rarely or never” attend Mass (The figure below compares teens to data from CARA’s most recent CARA Catholic Poll conducted in September 2012). This is not surprising as many Catholic teens are living with Catholic parents in their 40s and their Mass attendance mirrors their frequency (i.e., they often go to Mass with their parents). CARA research indicates many young Catholics begin to attend Mass less frequently once they leave the parental home and this often continues into their 20s before beginning to rise again in their 30s and 40s.
Although many parents may express concerns about their teens not communicating enough with them in general, many Catholic teens say their parents rarely or never speak to them about religion. Only 8% report their parents talk to them about religion daily and 20% say their parents do so at least once a week.
As shown below, 75% say their faith is important to them. A quarter (25%) say it is either not important at all or not too important to them. The largest sub-group, 45% say their faith is “important, but so are many other areas of my life.” Only 9% say it is “the most important part of my life.”
The teens were also asked about the religious activities they take part in on a regular basis. Thirteen percent indicated regularly participating in retreats. Eight percent say they regularly participate in prayer groups, 7% in Eucharistic adoration, and 7% in Bible study. A quarter (25%) said they had participated in a parish youth group at some point. Fifteen percent said they had been an altar server and this percentage is the same for both males and females.
Only 20% indicated that they read the Bible or pray with scripture at least once a month. Six in ten say they “rarely or never” do this. Fourteen percent indicate they pray the rosary at least monthly. At the same time, 71% say prayer is either “among the most important parts” of their lives (25%) or that it is “important, but so are many other areas of my life” (46%).
Sixty-seven percent of Catholic teens agree that “God is one with whom people can have a relationship.” When presented with an “image of God” question, the teens were most likely to say (69%) the following description comes closest to their view: “God is a positive influence in the word that loves unconditionally, helping us in spite of our failings.”
The teens were asked about how important a list of factors were to their sense of “what is means to be a Catholic.” They were most likely to say receiving the Eucharist (44%) and helping the poor (43%) were “very important” to their sense of this. These aspects were followed by protecting life (35%), attending Sunday Mass each week (32%), and having devotion to Mary (28%).
Many of the aspects that are considered “very important” are things the teens can do outside of their parishes. In fact, only 12% said “being involved with my parish” was “very important” to their sense of what it means to be a Catholic.
Overall, 61% percent of teens agree that “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.” The other 39% agreed more with the statement, “Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present.” Among those stating a belief in the Real Presence, 61% said “receiving the Eucharist” is “very important” to their sense of what it means to be Catholic. By comparisons, only 17% of those who do not believe in the Real Presence consider receiving Holy Communion to be “very important” to their sense of what it means to be Catholic.
Although use of new media and the internet is widespread and frequent among American youth, many Catholic teens do not indicate use of these tools yet to connect with content about their faith. When these teens seek out religious or spiritual content they are still more often looking to traditional media than new media. Television is the most popular choice for this.
In terms of demographics, 49% of the Catholic teens self-identified their race and/or ethnicity as non-Hispanic white and 38% as Hispanic or Latino. Seven percent self-identified their race and/or ethnicity as Asian or Pacific Islander, 3% as Black or African American, and 2% as Native American. Eighteen percent indicated that they were born outside of the United States.
Applying survey percentages to Census population data, CARA estimates that there are about 4 million Catholics between the ages of 14 and 17 in the United States today. Thus, in the survey results above each single percentage point of the Catholic teen sample represents about 40,000 individuals. Interviewed in 2012, these teens were born between 1995 and 1998.
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
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