Posted November 16, 2005
Study finds U.S. Catholic teens
less religious than Protestant teens
By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service
A wide study of U.S. teenagers has found that Catholic teens lag behind
their Protestant counterparts on many measures of religious belief,
experiences and activities.
Only 10 percent of Catholic teens, for example, said religion was "extremely
important" in shaping their daily life, while 20 percent of mainline
Protestant teens, 29 percent of conservative Protestant teens and 31 percent
of black Protestant teens felt that way.
Forty percent of Catholic teens said they had never attended any
parish-based religious education, compared to 19 percent of mainline
Protestants, 13 percent of conservative Protestants and 12 percent of black
Protestants. "Mainline" refers to generally ecumenical and liberal denominations, while "conservative" refers to evangelical, Pentecostal and
Forty percent of Catholic teens said they attended religious services once a
week or more -- just slightly below black and mainline Protestant teens but
15 percent lower than teens in conservative congregations.
But when it came to attending religious services more than once a week, only
6 percent of Catholic teens said they did so; among Protestant teens the
numbers were significantly higher -- 13 percent for mainline, 24 percent for
black and 29 percent for conservative.
The study found that such differences "can be significantly explained by the
lower levels of religiosity of their (Catholic teenagers') parents" when
those parents are compared with Protestant parents. Notably, the parents of
the Catholic teens were far less likely than their Protestant counterparts
to participate in organized parish activities outside worship.
Highlights of the findings were published in the fall issue of The CARA
Report, a quarterly publication of the Center for Applied Research in the
Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The National Study of Youth and Religion was based on a national telephone
survey of 3,370 teenagers and their parents in all states and follow-up
personal interviews with 267 of the teen respondents in 45 states. It was
conducted in 2002-03 by researchers at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill with funding from the Lilly Endowment. Of those surveyed, 816
were Catholic, including 238 Hispanic Catholics.
Youths in the phone survey were 13 to 17 years old. Because of a time lag of
several months between the survey and the in-depth personal interviews, a
few participants in the follow-up phase were 18 when they were interviewed.
Earlier this year the findings were reported and analyzed in a book, "Soul
Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers," by
University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith, principal
investigator in the project.
The researchers also studied teens of no religious affiliation and of other
religious affiliations, including enough Jews and Latter-day Saints to
provide statistically meaningful data.
On most questions of religious beliefs, attitudes or involvement, only
Jewish teens -- who were oversampled to obtain statistically valid
findings -- ranked lower than Catholic teens on a number of questions. For
example, only 8 percent of the Jewish teens said religious faith was
"extremely important" in shaping their daily life.
Because of the significant differences between Catholic and Protestant teens
in many areas, Smith devoted a full chapter of "Soul Searching" to analyzing
the "lower levels of religiosity" found among Catholic teens as a whole.
The researchers tested for various demographic factors such as regional
location, age, gender, parents' marital status and the higher proportion of
Hispanics among Catholic teens, he said. They found that when they
controlled the data for those variables, the lower level of Catholic teen
church attendance, importance of faith and youth-group participation
remained "nearly the same as without the controls."
The variables that did make a difference were parental, Smith said. "It
appears that the relative religious laxity of most U.S. Catholic teenagers
significantly reflects the relative religious laxity of their parents," he
"Compared to their Protestant peers, U.S. Catholic parents of teenagers are
somewhat less likely than conservative and black -- but not mainline --
Protestant parents of teens to attend church regularly and are more likely
than the same to attend infrequently or never," he wrote.
"U.S. Catholic parents of teenagers are also much less likely than all of
their Protestant counterparts to participate in organized activities at
church other than regular worship services, such as Bible studies, potluck
meals, music practices and small groups," he added. "Catholic parents of
teens are less than half as likely as all U.S. parents, including
nonreligious parents, to do so weekly or more often, and nearly 10 percent
more likely never to do so at all."
Besides being less likely to be involved in parish community life, Catholic
parents of teens were less likely than their Protestant counterparts to say
their faith is extremely or very important in their lives or to be married
to someone of the same faith, Smith said.
After introducing controls for lower parental religiosity, the researchers
found the gaps between the Catholic and Protestant teens on church
attendance and the importance of faith narrowed significantly, he said, and
when they introduced the effect of parental involvement or noninvolvement in
the parish community outside of worship, the difference between the teens
became "statistically insignificant."
Introducing controls for those variables, however, did not entirely explain
the large gap between Catholic and Protestant teens in youth-group
participation, the study found. Even when those factors were taken into
account, Catholic teens participated less in religious youth groups than the
Protestant teens with similar parental backgrounds.
He suggested that this seemed to be more of an institutional problem, with
evidence that Catholic parishes tend to devote fewer resources to youth
ministry than do their Protestant counterparts.
He suggested that to regain the religious potential of its youths, the
Catholic Church needs to "invest a great deal more attention, creativity and
institutional resources into its young members -- and therefore into its own
"Undeniably, the future shape of the U.S. Catholic Church vitally depends on
it," he said.
The researchers also produced a separate 67-page report analyzing just the
Catholic data, which was commissioned and published by the National
Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
Data comparing Hispanic and white Catholic teens were provided to the
Instituto Fe y Vida (Institute for Faith and Life), which analyzed them for
their implications for Hispanic ministry. The institute published its
findings in a 24-page booklet, "Perspectives on Hispanic Youth and Young