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Nuns and Nones... continued...

On 6-24-2016 I wrote a brief commentary on what we call the "nones"... that is, those people who check the box that says "none" when asked about their religious affiliation.  That commentary was based on an address by my former high school's principal at their 2016 graduation address.  But this topic of the "nones" returned to my attention with this article posted on our daily Angelus News email from the e-magazine Crux:

Notre Dame debuts digital platform to reach young Catholics, ‘nones’

Please take a moment to read it... 

Of particular interest is the increasing number of "nones," those people who claim no religious affiliation. I first heard this term a few years back from one of the speakers at our LA Religious Education Congress. The term itself grew out of a 2012 Pew Research study that showed this rising trend. Working as I do with the RCIA and Adult Faith Formation, this was a known issue, but the Pew study validated what many of us were seeing with those looking to be Baptized into the Church.

This phenomenon of the "nones" is the direct result of the growing secularization of our society. Parents who may have been raised in a religious tradition, but end up turning away from that faith, then only to have children who then were not raised with any formal religious formation or affiliation.

Looking at this situation reminds us that institutional religion is as much cultural as it is spiritual. My parents were Irish-Italians from Brooklyn NY, whose parents were also Irish and Italian from Brooklyn. I often (jokingly) say that when it comes to my being Catholic, I didn't have a choice. My family and cultural heritage was Catholic. So is my wife's. But even though we were "culturally" Catholic, there comes a point where every young adult must decide to become "spiritually" Catholic... to accept the faith as their own beyond any family or cultural influences. And it's important to note: This isn't a uniquely Catholic problem... this phenomenon cuts across the religious spectrum.

So, as more adults, for what ever reason, leave their faith behind, their children are being raised with no formal formation. Their excuse is almost universal, "We'll let them decide when they're old enough." I would argue that by that time, it's too late, and more often than not, their decision is to not make a decision, but to continue with what seems to be a perfectly fine secular life.

When my children were born, we had them Baptized into our Catholic faith. To our Catholic friends, who knew we were both very active in the Church, this was expected... as was our decision to send them to Catholic schools. But to our non-Catholic friends, this was harder to understand. This idea of "letting them decide for themselves" was ingrained in their secular cultural understanding. Some secularists can be down right hostile to the idea, saying that we're "forcing" our beliefs onto our children. They wanted to know why we would do such a thing.

There were actually many reasons why we did this. First and foremost however was so they could get to know God and grow up with a social ethic that embraced the teachings of Jesus. The golden rule: Love God, Love your neighbor. To give them a solid moral and ethical foundation as well as a religious foundation.

But why not let them choose on their own later? Two reasons. First, in order to make a rational choice, you need to give them some experience of the alternatives. Society gives them the secular perspective, so without us parents to give them a religious perspective, their decision is based on very one-sided data. If you spend your life in a land of ice cream, why would you want to explore a life of vegetables?

Second, and more importantly, they still have a choice! As adults they have the choice to walk away... But now they have the experience and mature reasoning to make that choice. They've had the experience of both ice cream and vegetables, and use that experience to help them decide. As children we may not like vegetables, but as adults our tastes change. They may even enjoy vegetables (beyond the basic reasoning that they are nutritious and good for you... yes, I'm saying religion is the vegetables in this example.) Especially our Catholic faith. It is an adult faith. It is an intellectual and spiritual journey that requires a sense of maturity to fully embrace. You can begin that formation with children, but let's be honest, most kids would rather be doing anything else than to sit through Mass... but as my kids have gotten older, I've seen them grow in their understanding of the Liturgy, to become comfortable with the rhythm of the Mass while enjoying those moments that can make the Mass more of an experience (like with the music selections and the homily).

What is saddest about many of these "nones" is that many of their parents never received sufficient formation in their Catholic faith (or other faith traditions) in order to make a reasoned choice to either accept it or abandon it. One bad experience with a priest or parish can taint the whole experience. Bad catechesis can create a sense of superstitious obligation to God and the Church rather than a reasoned and fruitful relationship with God through his Church. If the parents see no value in this relationship, why should their kids? So is it any wonder that the vast majority of them chose the secular route? The route that they know over the one they don't.

So for those who fall into the "none" category, we need to reach out. We need to begin with basic Catholic charity and Christian fellowship. Give them the chance to experience Church, both as a people and through the Liturgy. Show them that our faith is not a bunch of superstitious rules, but an avenue toward building a lasting relationship with God. To show them that we're real people living in the same secular world, but still finding God in everyone and everything. To give them the experiences and knowledge that can allow them to make that decision. To show them that we're just people trying to do our best, but doing it together in community.


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