Recently we have begun hearing about religious “nones”. Many of my generation initially assumed the term referred to the “nuns” we had in Catholic school. In my case, they were the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, WI – superb educators and consistently caring women who instilled a love for learning, for service and for God. Sorry, I have no stories of mean nuns. Never once did I see a ruler come down on anyone’s knuckles in my K-8 years at Cathedral grade school in Omaha.
It has been quite a stretch for me to understand that “nones” now refer to people who claim no religious affiliation. The number of “nones” has been inching upward so religious affiliation in the U.S. is presently at the lowest level since pollsters have been keeping track of such patterns. Here is a dramatic representation of affiliation – or more precisely, unaffiliation – by generation:
What do you see? How do you feel about such patterns? What questions do these percentages raise? A few will likely react with alarm, consternation and despair. Some may see in this single statistical rendering confirmation that the world is in fact going to hell.
I would suggest a pervading attitude of curiosity. Rather than rushing to premature judgment, we would do better to approach the data with eagerness to find out what is really going on – or not — in our young, our world and our churches. Might it be that the Millennials are withholding “affiliation” with all sorts of social institutions, not just churches? Political systems are dysfunctional by most standards. Our economy is rife with examples of corrupt corporate practices and failure to generate sufficient jobs for their generation. Churches of all stripes are too often boring, irrelevant and present shocking examples of corrupt leadership. But conjecture and defense is not my purpose.
Curiosity, and confidence in the enduring benevolence of the Holy Spirit, leads us in another direction. The Dominican “nuns” of my youth would certainly have us move in that positive direction of openness, trust and confidence. Where in the New Testament does it say we are always to be prepared to give a defense for our hope, both in and out of season?
Rather than indicting an entire generation, we would do better to remain curious about the 67% of young people born in the early 1990s and the 70% of young adults born in the 1980s who positively choose affiliation with a faith practice. What is enriching and worthy of imitation in their affiliation with their communities? We must accept that “church” can, will and must look very different in the future – if not, aren’t we idolators? Are we elders truly willing to turn over significant responsibility and meaningful leadership to those in their late twenties and early thirties? I mean really turn over responsibility and leadership!
Whoever said, “Beware of anyone who thinks they have the answers!” was onto something profound. Can we “live the questions” as Rilke counsels the young poet or as we see in Mary of Nazareth’s “How can this be?” A good dose of spiritual humility along the line of the psalmist would also seem to be in order: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Finally, if we are prone to consternation about the lack of faith affiliation among our young, we would do well to learn the truth so effectively communicated by the “nuns” at my grade school: Faith is “caught” more than taught! Perhaps the greatest gift of the “nones” is a call to the rest of us to lives deserving of affiliation.
I first saw the affiliation chart in “Suspicious Minds” available in the current issue of America Magazine: http://americamagazine.org/issue/suspicious-minds
Over the last several years I’ve been looking for you and wondering what ever happened to you. Hunted for you in that big Catholic Directory and had an inkling you might have left the Jesuits and the priesthood. Sr. Margaret McGuirk just wrote about you and I’m glad to touch base with you again.
—Frances Consuelo Ibarley, OP