Campus ministry: Last shot at focusing on Catholic 'nones' before the exit door?

On one level, this week's GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast is about young Catholics, Confession and campus ministry, using my Universal Syndicate column from this past week as a starting point.

But "campus ministry," narrowly defined, is not what this podcast is about.

What host Todd Wilken and I ended up discussing (click here to tune that in) was a much broader topic. The key is that my column grew out of a very specific statistic that I saw in a blog post by Marcel LeJeune, who is assistant director of the massive campus ministry program at St. Mary's Catholic Center across from Texas A&M University. He wrote:

We know that of those that no longer identify as Catholic 79% do so by the age of 23 (Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, Page 33). So, young adults should be the focal point of our efforts and if we want to get even more narrow, then the best way to influence young people is to start with the most influential ones in their age group, the leaders. Most who end up becoming influential leaders will go to college. Finally, since 90% of Catholic college students go to non-Catholic schools, we MUST focus our energies on continued growth and dynamic evangelization in campus ministries at non-Catholic schools (mostly public).

Now, that reference to young Catholics leaving the church by age 23 made me, as a journalist, think -- yes, here we go again -- about one of the interesting wrinkles in that "Nones on the Rise" study back in 2012, by the Pew Research Center. Let's jump back in time to a column I wrote about that:

This survey shows that "it's going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment," said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, after a briefing at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association of America. ...
Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. ...
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans -- especially the young -- are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised.

Now, combine these sobering themes with the following specific fact:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases.

So one of the main reason that young believers turn into "nones," it seems, is the rejection of traditional doctrines on moral issues, especially those linked to sexuality.

Now, if you take that issue and combine it with LeJeune's fervent concern about Catholics leaving the faith by the age of 23, then you have the topic of this week's podcast. But this is an issue that is much more than a Catholic thing -- it affects any religious tradition that believes that "sin" exits and has something to do with, well, things like eternal life.

Why are Confession statistics down, down, down and almost gone in contemporary American Catholic life?

Why is the Catholic exit door so close to age 23?

Think about it. Here's a key chunk of my new column on LeJeune and his work, including the paragraph that connects these various dots:

Parish leaders know all about modern campus trends with alcohol, pornography and "hooking up." They know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average age at which young Americans lose their virginity is 17 and that, between ages 20 and 24, 86 percent of males and 88 percent of females are sexually active, to varying degrees.
But the statistic LeJeune stresses is that nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23. In other words, he thinks that if Catholics are serious about influencing young people before they join the growing ranks of the so-called "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- they must invest more time and resources into campus ministries.
Texas A&M has more than 58,000 students and 25 percent of them, to one degree or another, are Catholics. Do the math. That's a big parish.
"It's a shame that only 25 to 30 percent of our secular campuses nationwide have Catholic campus ministries of any kind," said LeJeune. "There may be a parish somewhere nearby where some kids are going to Mass, but there's nobody there who is reaching out to college students day after day."

Is this a subject that more religious leaders need to discuss? If they have grasped the stark realities of this equation, then isn't that story -- for journalists -- the next pew-level hook in the  much-discussed "Nones" phenomenon?

Enjoy the podcast.

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