In his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel (UTG), Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron notes that “for several decades the number of practicing Catholics has been in steady decline” (UTG, 3.2). Perhaps this decline is most alarmingly demonstrated in the religious attendance and practice of young adults. 

Broadly, statistics from surveys over the past five to 10 years have indicated an increase in the percentage of young adults who claim to have no allegiance to or identification with a faith tradition (1). This subset of young adults is popularly referred to as “nones,” a term that reflects their lack of self-identification with a formal religious denomination or category. While some of these same young adults would claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” the increase in the number of “nones” appears to be representative of a continued downward sloping trajectory of religious attendance.

In my doctoral research, I sought to better understand the experiences of how and why a particular group of young adult “nones,” i.e., those who have been never baptized, decided to investigate the Catholic faith. Within this series of articles, I will share insights from that research based upon my interviews with 24 unbaptized young adults in the Archdiocese of Detroit between 2017 and 2018. While this group of young adults does not represent all unbaptized young adults in the archdiocese (and certainly not all young adults in the United States), I suggest there is significant data from these interviews that affirm many of Archbishop Vigneron’s statements in Unleash the Gospel.

Who are these young adults?

Basically, they are in our backyard. They come from rural, urban and suburban parishes. The average age of the group of young adults whom I interviewed was 27.4 years, however their ages ranged from 20-35 years. The table below presents the demographic breakdown in terms of gender, marital status, ethnicity and education.

Table 1.1 Demographic Analysis of Young Adults

Count Percentage

Male

7

29%

Female

17

71%

Single

11

46%

Married

13

54%

Asian

1

4%

Black

2

8%

Latino

1

4%

White

20

83%

Some high school

1

4%

High school diploma

1

4%

Some college

6

25%

College certificate

2

8%

Associate

2

8%

Bachelor degree

11

46%

Master degree

1

4%

In 12 (or 50%) of the cases, young adult participants identified their parents as “Catholic.” In three of these cases, both parents were identified as Catholic, while in nine cases only one parent was described as Catholic. When only one parent was described as “Catholic,” the gender was fairly equally split, i.e., four fathers and five mothers. In such cases, the marriage could be described as interfaith or “mixed faith” (2). Fifteen (58.3%) of the participants mentioned a parent or parents identified as “not practicing.” In two of these cases, the non-practicing parent was also described as a “believer” or “spiritual.” Several participants identified their parents (or other family members) as “Catholic” even though they later added without prompting that the same parent or parents do not actively practice or only attend sporadically (e.g., Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals).

Interestingly, half of the participants identified their grandparents (one or both) as either “religious” or described the grandparent in some way as actively practicing a religious faith through traditional markers (e.g., going to church, praying rosary, religious items on wall).

By themselves, these figures may suggest that the young adults I interviewed represent the second generation in which faith is not transmitted or practiced. In nearly all 12 cases, the “religious” grandparents did not appear to pass down the practice of the faith to the parents of the participants.

This phenomenon affirms the finding from the recent Vatican Synod of Bishops on Young People that “adults are not interested in conveying the founding values of our existence to younger generations” (3). It may also point to a growing “lack of collective memory” among American generations since the 1960s, when the participants’ parents, in these cases, grew up and married. The term “collective memory” was defined by Daniele Hervieu-Léger as the shared pooled knowledge and memories of two or members of a social group (4). For example, when both parents and grandparents of the current generation of young adults have not actively practiced and transmitted the faith, then there is no memory or language being passed down to the subsequent generations.

This trend may mean that each subsequent generation becomes less open and disposed to hearing the kerygma or Gospel message. And, unless the Church can find a way to reverse the trend, the pattern will likely continue.

Choosing my religion

Certainly, we may lament parents’ inability to pass down the faith due to ignorance. However, a more disturbing element of my research found that seven participants indicated their parents had allowed them to choose their own religion.

According to Jason (names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals), his “Catholic” but non-practicing parents “…very much wanted me to have a little bit of exposure to make my own decisions and my own determinations about, if I wanted to follow a faith or if, you know, I didn't believe in that. They were very big on me making my own decisions.”

Similarly, Leisa noted that her “[adopted] parents were Catholic but they never pushed it on us, like never ever. It was always our choice.”

Shane represents one of the four cases in my study whose parents were of mixed faith. As he describes his religious upbringing: “[I had a] Catholic father and my mother wasn't too terribly religious. Her parents were [religious] but they never got into the Catholic faith. I was kind of torn. I went with my dad and he wanted me to be Catholic and baptized and everything but my mom wanted me to be able to choose. So it wasn't that I wasn't a believer but it wasn't really … emphasized in my family, just because my parents … my mom wasn't practicing. So they didn't make it a point to practice the faith with the family, because of the different views, I guess.

Overall, this phenomenon may reflect a growing trend of individualism or consumerism in religious choice. British sociologist Grace Davie claims that a culture of consumption promotes a kind of spirituality or religion that can be adopted when and if the individual wants and when and if it makes sense to him or her, rather than believing or attending religious services out of obligation (5). Religion or spirituality therefore becomes not only the individual’s choice, but its tenets must also resonate with the individual and make sense in terms of the individual where he or she is and as he or she understands oneself to be (6). Such a self-referential, individualistic spirituality has given rise to a variety of terms, including “spiritual but not religious” and even “cafeteria believer.”

How do we begin to reverse these trends? In my next article, I will discuss the experience of the role of the initial encounter as the first step which propelled these young adults toward baptism in the Catholic faith.

Tamra Hull Fromm is director of discipleship and an instructor with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan and has taught at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.


  1. Cf. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2008) http://www.pewforum.org/2008/06/01/u-s-religious-landscape-survey-religious-beliefs-and-practices/ Accessed 6 December 2018; “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 12 May 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ Accessed 6 December 2018; Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Keysar, “American Religious Identification Survey” (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2001) https://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/surveys/aris-2001/ Accessed 6 December 2018; Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, ‘American Religious Identification Survey 2008 Summary Report’ (Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture, 2009) https://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/publications/2008-2/aris-2008-summary-report/ Accessed 6 December 2018.
  2. Five participants (20.8%) described their parents’ marriage as ‘mixed faith’. Of these, two were Catholic/Orthodox, one was Catholic/Buddhist, and two were Catholic/none.
  3. Synod of Bishops, XV Ordinary General Assembly, “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” Instrumentum Laboris, Vatican City, (2018), §14 http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20180508_instrumentum-xvassemblea-giovani_en.html Accessed 13 December 2018.
  4. Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
  5. Grace Davie, “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?,” in The Hedgehog Review, Spring/Summer 2006, pp. 23-34: 27; Avery Dulles, “The Impact of the Catholic Church on American Culture,” in Thomas Rausch, ed., Evangelizing America (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), pp. 11-26: 20.
  6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 486, 507.