Bringing Home the “Nones”
For twenty-one-year-old Georgetown University student Michael Ginsberg, organized religion seemed to be associated with bad news. More often than not, religion became synonymous with scandalous headlines, corruption, and hypocrisy.
“It just wasn’t for me. I thought it was bogus, and I had no interest in wasting my time by getting involved in it,” he said. “I just kept to myself and said prayers once in a while. I knew there had to be something more to life, but it wasn’t going to be found in church.”
Ginsberg, whose major is medieval studies, said he’s spiritual but not religious. However, his beliefs have shifted within the last two years. His pursuit to find something more led Ginsberg to the Catholic Church.
As spiritual but not religious, Ginsberg is not alone, particularly among his generation. A 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that close to 20 percent of Americans identify this way. The largest part of the 20 percent was between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, closely followed by people ages eighteen to twenty-nine. And more than three of ten in this latter group said they are Catholic.
These statistics are not surprising to Troy Woytek, director of campus ministry at Washington University in St. Louis. “I hear this mantra ‘spiritual but not religious’ all the time from students,” he said. “It’s indicative of a lack of trust and credibility of religion and of institutions in general that is so prevalent today. Young people feel that they don’t need a religious institution to mediate their spiritual experience. They feel they can do it on their own.”
According to Woytek, this approach, popular among young adults, is rooted in the feeling that institutions have failed them. They have grown up in a Church that seems to be constantly clouded in scandal and led by a government that appears to be dysfunctional. “They see these imperfections, and they throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “Rather than stick around and deal with the messiness, they play it safe and go at it alone. We live in a culture that is so individualistic, and that value is reinforced in the realm of religion. Young adults don’t need other people to tell them how to pray to God or how to worship. If they did, why would they want to join a church full of corrupt leaders and people?”
Woytek, who has been involved in campus ministry since 2005, added that today’s college students have far less to do with church than those of a decade ago. In part that’s because their parents stopped going to church and passing along their own religious traditions. “Today’s students see no need for Mass, as it wasn’t part of their upbringing,” he said.
After You Find the God of Beauty, Then What?
The PRRI study showed that most of those who profess to be spiritual but not religious tend to find meaning and inspiration in life by watching television and movies, listening to music, or through various other media. Of equal importance to this group is the priority to get outside and experience nature on a regular basis. This could include hiking, gardening, or viewing a sunset on a beach. Fr. Tom Lankenau, SJ, the chaplain of St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center at Boise State University in Boise, has no problem with these inspirational methods, but he warns they can only go so far. He said the campus parish has around 700 registered students, but only 120 to 150 regularly attend weekly Mass.
“I hear students telling me they find God in nature and art all the time. But my question to them is: What’s your next step on your journey?” he said. “Are you willing to keep going and try to understand the God of all being who is behind the sunset and the beautiful garden? But more often than not, their search ends at the beach or in the forest. Those trees become their god or their religion. Everybody has a god, and in this culture people want to create religion on their own terms. They want to be their own pope.”
Fr. Joshua Barlett, Newman Center chaplain at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, MO, has had plenty of these discussions with his students as well. “Beauty is one of the transcendentals of God—that is who he is. So, finding God in beauty is a great thing, but it can’t be just that,” he related. “God made it clear that he wanted us to be under the guidance of his apostles and the Church. It’s one thing to know that God is everywhere and another to give God the proper worship and honor he is due. I say bring that awe and admiration for God the Creator to Mass on Sunday.”
Did Jesus Come
to Establish a Religion?
All three campus ministers noted that they often hear from those who identify as spiritual but not religious that, somewhere along the line, organized religion and going to church left a bad taste in their mouths. They concluded that attending church was about following rules and jumping through moral hoops. They couldn’t seem to reconcile all the religious regulations with the simplicity of Jesus’ teachings.
Fr. Lankenau argues the contrary. “Jesus came out of a religion—the Jewish religion,” he noted. “It says in the Bible that Jesus went to the synagogue, and so everything in his entire context was based on his religion. Furthermore, he came to establish a church when he said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build my church’” (Matthew 16:18).
Fr. Lankenau added that Jesus came to show us how to live within the context of the Church, but because we are human, the Church has always had flaws, which accounts for the dysfunction in religious institutions. “Just days after the resurrection, there was fighting over who was in charge, how Gentiles would be included, and how to offer sacrifice,” he said. “People are looking for this perfect religion or this perfect church, and it doesn’t exist. I tell people to let me know when they find the perfect church because I’ll be the first one to join it.”
Thus, when people say they can’t belong to a man-made religion or church, that—in Fr. Lankenau’s opinion—is a cop-out. “How much Scripture have they read? Or do they know Church history?” he added. “It’s easy to get out of the challenge of belonging to a religion.”
At Washington University, Woytek and his staff face the challenge of moving self-centered students from an individualistic faith to a communal faith. “We have found that the best evangelizers are other Catholic students,” he said. “Students who can personally share the value of Mass, for instance, are a much more legitimate and relevant witness than pointing out a Catholic obligation or duty to attend church on Sunday.”
He said he often hears from students who have taken “religious” baby steps by going to a talk, a Bible study, or a fellowship group with friends. Later, they become committed. They want to know more and eventually will return to the sacraments, start attending Mass on a regular basis or enter the RCIA program. “These spiritual students will tell me that this organized religion—the Catholic Church—that they were once so leery of has given them direction in life,” said Woytek. “It has become a place where they’re not alone but can struggle with their questions on faith and God in a community.”
Fr. Barlett agreed heartily. “Time and time again, I hear from people in our RCIA program that it was their spiritual quest that eventually led them to religion and the Church,” he said. “Something was missing, and they couldn’t put their finger on it. So they ended up going from denomination to denomination, but the moment they walked into the Catholic Church and experienced Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, they noticed that something was different. They wanted to go deeper. I am often amazed at how the Lord can use that seeking for the spiritual to bring people into the fold.”
For Michael Ginsberg, it was the witness of the Jesuits at Georgetown and his roommate that led him into the RCIA program and ultimately into the Church. The student remembers something special about the first Mass he attended to appease his roommate in December 2017.
“At Mass, you’re by yourself with God, but you’re also with other people, and there was something very special about that,” he recalled. He wanted to know more, and he started to meet with a Jesuit priest for lunch each week. We talked about what it would mean to be a Catholic. I liked the direction it presented to me. Before coming to Georgetown, I was wandering and scared and didn’t know who I wanted to be.”
The more he learned about Catholic spirituality, the more he knew it was for him. It has provided balance and rules for life that he didn’t have as he was sorting out his spirituality on his own. At the Easter Vigil in April, Ginsberg was baptized and confirmed at Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Georgetown. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said with a smile. “I didn’t expect to be a part of something so much bigger than myself. I finally feel at home.”
Meet the “Nones”
According to Katie Diller, director of campus ministry at the Newman Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, self-identifying as spiritual but not religious is largely a thing of the past. “That is so ten years ago,” she said with a smile. “For us, working with the eighteen to twenty-five crowd, we’re facing young adults who declare themselves as ‘Catholic nones.’ They have no spirituality or religious affiliations whatsoever. They don’t even bother with it.”
She explained that the shift from some spirituality to no spirituality comes from a generation that has grown up surrounded by the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The sexual-abuse scandal in Boston broke in 2002 when many of today’s college students were just being born.
“For those of us Catholics who are in our thirties or older, there was a certain amount of duty or guilt associated with the idea of getting to church regularly,” Diller explained. “So, to be spiritual but not religious helped fill that requirement. Mom and Dad didn’t have to worry about us when we left home because, while we might not have been going to Mass, we were still seeking truth and were striving to be good people.”
However, times have changed, and this analysis no longer applies. “Many of the parents of today’s college students didn’t attend church at all, and thus it was not a family priority,” Diller added. “Therefore, there’s no guilt or connection to religion. Church is a non-issue. In fact, this generation feels entitled to separate themselves from organized religion.”
That entitlement, she said, can be seen through those who opt out of regular emails from the Catholic campus ministry. “Five years ago, when students opted out of emails they would say that this is not relevant to me,” she related. “Now, they are saying, ‘I have left the Church.’ We’re seeing a more decisive sense of ‘I’m separating myself from the Catholic Church, and I want you to know about it.’ They are angry, and they want to let us know. It is a type of statement about who they are and how we, the Catholic Church, have failed.”
Diller said up-front honesty is not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s something we need to listen to,” she said. “Every person who leaves our Church is a reflection of how we have failed to evangelize, catechize, or heal. When we see people depart, we need to look at ourselves. We can’t blame their poorly catechized parents or a scandal. Somewhere or somehow, we have failed them.” A