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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 fundamentalist denominations.

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 said.

"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 life."

"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 Adult Ministry."