Going after the lost sheep of Generation Z

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Good Shepherd Sunday is a poignant reminder of one of the Church’s sacred duties: to guide and nurture young people in their spiritual journey. This Sunday, a special celebration commemorating Our Lord’s unwavering guidance and protection prompts us to examine the evolving spiritual landscape of Generation Z, particularly in light of recent findings on religious observance trends. A groundbreaking survey published on April 4 by the Survey Center on American Life unveils a startling reversal in the sexual dynamics of religious disaffiliation, with young women leaving religious communities in unprecedented numbers. This shift challenges long-held assumptions and signals a profound cultural and spiritual disconnection that demands our urgent attention and action.

While 71% of baby boomers regularly attended religious services as teenagers, that figure has plummeted to 52% among Gen Z. What’s even more striking is the difference in disaffiliation between men and women in Gen Z. Historically, men have been more likely to distance themselves from the exercise of religion and religious affiliation. Yet, the current generation of Gen Z adults presents a new pattern: 54% of those who have disaffiliated are women. This reversal is emblematic of deeper undercurrents of change, influenced significantly by issues prompted by contemporary feminism, including sexual equality and a perceived cultural mismatch between conservative religious doctrines and the progressive values many young women hold today.

A crisis in womanhood

Today 61% of Gen Z women identify as feminists, reflecting a growing dissonance with institutions perceived to uphold sexual inequality. Nearly two-thirds believe that Christian denominations do not treat men and women equally, revealing a critical gap between Catholic teaching and the lived experiences and expectations of young women.

But modern feminism has been on the rise for decades. So, what has led to an increasing disaffiliation of Gen Z women? It seems that broader cultural shifts, with a significant rise in young women identifying as liberal since 2015 and issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ+ identities, are becoming central to their departure from the Church. In fact, by some estimates, as many as 3 in 10 Gen Z women identify with a sexual identity as something other than “straight.” This trend, more recent than the rise in modern feminism, is alarming. Why do our young women not realize the beauty of their femininity? Why are young women more likely to identify as men than young men are to identify as women?

The departure of young women from religion poses a unique challenge, given the historically central role of women in community building and in nurturing the faith of future generations.

These trends have profound implications for the Catholic Church. The departure of young women from religion poses a unique challenge, given the historically central role of women in community building and in nurturing the faith of future generations. We must ask: How can the Church celebrate the unique contributions Gen Z women will bring to the Church?


Reaffirming the ‘feminine genius’

The statistics and stories emerging from the experiences of young women call for a comprehensive reassessment of how we engage with and support our youth. They highlight a pressing need for resources and approaches that understand the values and experiences of young people today and draw them to a spiritual home that offers the Truth, the healing balm of the Gospel.

This call to action is not just about stemming the tide of disaffiliation but about imitating the Good Shepherd to call young people out of the crisis consuming their generation. Consider that while 36% of baby boomers felt lonely or isolated often as teens, that number has skyrocketed to 61% among Gen Z teens. Such remarkable levels of loneliness demonstrate the profound need for community among our young people.

As Pope Francis preached this year on the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, “Every society needs to accept the gift that is woman, every woman: to respect, defend and esteem women, in the knowledge that whosoever harms a single woman profanes God, who was ‘born of a woman.'” As we move forward, let us draw inspiration from the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 to seek out the one. In doing so, we must find new ways to engage and embrace Gen Z women so that they can find and claim the place that is rightly theirs in the fold. By doing so, we can ensure that the Church remains a nurturing force in the lives of future generations, guiding them not away from but closer to the flock.

The changing religious landscape among Gen Z, particularly the significant shift in the religious observance of young women, is an opportunity for reflection and action. It is a chance for the Church to reaffirm its esteem for what Pope St. John Paul II rightly dubbed the “feminine genius.” This Good Shepherd Sunday, may we amplify the shepherd’s voice. His voice is a voice of truth and love, calling each member of his flock by name.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.