Our Catholic Church: What Do We Tell Our Daughters? A Tale of Warning and Hope

Natalia Imperatori-LeeOn April 15, 2016, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., head of Catholic Studies at Manhattan College in New York City will discuss, “Our Catholic Church: What Do We Tell Our Daughters?”  The event will be held at Rutgers Church in New York City. The event is filled to capacity and registration is now closed but the video will be available for viewing on the FutureChurch website.  

A missing generation 

In terms of engagement in the Catholic Church, there is a significant difference between Hispanic millennial women and non-Hispanic millennial women.  In this age bracket, Hispanic women are still quite active in parish life, attend Mass and are more likely to agree with the Church on hot button issues.

But the same is not true for non-Hispanic millennial women.  In 2012, Patricia Wittberg, S.C., Professor of Sociology at Purdue and Indiana University found that young women are leaving the Church in record numbers, a shift that began in the mid-1990s. While older Catholic women in the United States were more engaged in the Catholic Church than men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance.  They were also significantly more likely than the men to disagree with official Church teaching on women’s ordination, homosexuality, premarital sex and on whether one had to go to Mass to be considered a good Catholic.

That trend has deepened.

Data obtained from 2002 through 2008 from the General Social Survey indicated that millennial Catholic women (born between 1981 and 1995) are even more disaffected than Gen X women.  In fact, this is the first time a generation of Catholic women are more likely than their counterparts to say they never attend Mass. Further, they expressed a general lack of confidence in the Church.

Wittberg notes, this is not the case for Protestant women.

So, why are non-Hispanic millennial  Catholic women more disaffected than previous generations?

The answer is complex but below are some of the reasons as voiced by Millennials themselves.

1. Millennial women, like their male counterparts, are likely to disagree with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women to the priesthood and reproductive rights. They say they are appalled at the treatment of LGBT Catholics and women in the Church.  In one study, a 23-year old woman left because, “I felt deceived and undervalued by the church.”

While some finger-wagging bishops, priests and other Catholics largely root this dissent in secularism and individualism, many Millennials find the foundation for their disagreement within the very teachings of the Catholic Church; what they understand to have been the example of Jesus, what they intuit about the love God, and what they learned from Catholic Social Teaching.

The millennial view is also reflected in whom they trust.  Pope Francis is popular among young Catholics millennials for his open-armed spirituality and his humble desire to be in a meaningful loving relationship with people everywhere.  One study showed that only two percent of younger Catholics having a negative view of him while eighty percent have a negative view of bishops.  This may help explain why some studies show that even those who admire Pope Francis cannot see themselves returning to the Church.

2. Many believe the Church does not attract younger women because it limits the ways their gifts and talents can be engaged.  Leadership opportunities in the secular world are abundant. Women head national governments, lead military branches, run multi-national organizations, and work as senior managers.  They lead universities, hospitals and launch businesses. Limiting the opportunities for women to use their gifts for ministry and governance within the Church reduces its attractiveness.

Unlike the generations before them, most non-Hispanic millennial women are not walking through the doors of the Church in the hopes of finding greater meaning in their lives.  They are just walking by.  Carolyn Woo warned of the consequences of not engaging women more effectively at the recent Voices of Faith event held in the Vatican on March 8, 2016.

Women are knocking at the door and sometimes that is wearying for the people on the other side of the door…too much knocking.  But I have the fear that the generation of women who follow us will stop knocking. There will come a day when there is the silence of people not knocking.

As a whole host of younger women retreat from the Catholic Church, we need more than bandaids, or as Carolyn Woo stated, we need to go from “the exceptional to the habitual” when it comes to engaging them at every level of Church governance.  We need a comprehensive strategy for reform, inclusive practices and mentorships that will build trust and redeem the arrogance that drove a generation away.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee will seed that conversation and she will lead us to think about how we can move from words to action.

Our foremothers in faith taught us that God works in us.  If we are to have the blessings of the next generation of women in our parish communities, we must be faithful in our call to listen deeply, embrace all and to humbly invite those who are walking by to join us again so that together, we may incarnate the richest and most God-like aspects of our tradition for future generations.






Voices of Faith Multi-Generational Panel Discussion – March 8, 2016