What does the rise of the ‘nones’ mean for Christians today?

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Bishop Barron
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron speaks on the first day of the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore in June. CNS photo/Bob Roller

The Pew Research Center recently released a new study that looks at the changing religious landscape in the United States over the last decade. Gradually but noticeably, people have vacated their place in the pews, and the number of religiously unaffiliated — often referred to as the “nones” — continues to grow.


Our Sunday Visitor interviewed Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the chair of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is known for his media evangelization and desire to reach young people. In this interview, he reacts to the Pew survey and shares his insights as to what the Church can do to draw people of all ages back to the fold.

Our Sunday Visitor: New numbers were released by the Pew Research Center this week that show the number of “nones” continues to rise. What was most surprising to you about these new statistics?

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Bishop Robert Barron: Nothing really. I’ve been tracing this phenomenon for some time, and there has been a steady increase in the number of “nones” now for the past roughly 30 years. Unless and until some major shifts occur in the culture and/or the churches get really, really serious about this problem, things will remain the same.

Our Sunday Visitor: At the same time, the number of Christians is down by a dramatic 12 percentage points. What does that mean for people of faith and for the future of Christianity?

Bishop Barron: It bodes very ill for us. Jesus told us to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. The Christian churches are evangelical by their very nature. Hence we cannot be satisfied unless we are drawing ever more people to Christ. To be losing so many is to be moving precisely in the wrong direction. If I might point to a silver lining: These numbers should be an urgent wake-up call to all believers in Jesus Christ. A once vibrant Christian culture has disappeared in certain parts of the world — North Africa comes to mind — and it could happen in our own Western world, once so strongly Christian. So, we cannot rest in a complacent “maintenance” mode; we have to become explicitly evangelical and missionary.

Our Sunday Visitor: What are the factors that you think contribute to the continual decline?

Bishop Barron: On the cultural side of the equation, I would mention an ideology of self-invention, a rampant moral relativism, immanentism (by which I mean a denial of the transcendent dimension) and a preoccupation with the passing values of this world: wealth, pleasure, honor and power. On the ecclesial side of the equation, I would mention a tragic dumbing down of the Faith, which has now been on offer for the past 50 years, a lack of real missionary consciousness in our parishes, failure to listen attentively to what the unaffiliated, especially the young “nones” are telling us, and the shocking moral corruption of way too many leaders in the Church.

Our Sunday Visitor: Are we still in an era where the New Evangelization can be effective? What other methods of evangelization might we need to explore?

Bishop Barron: Evangelization can be effective in any era! The Good News that Jesus is risen from the dead never gets old, never ceases to inspire, never is anything less than thrilling and liberating. We should not be afraid to speak plainly and confidently of the Resurrection. Everything else in the life of the Church, from liturgy to the sacraments and social justice, all flows from that great fact. When the Resurrection goes unmentioned, the wind, evangelically speaking, goes out of our sails. And we become, at best, a faint echo of other voices within the culture.

Our Sunday Visitor: As you know, the polarization of society is mirrored even within the Church — the pope recently even mentioned the word “schism.” When the unaffiliated see Catholics in such tension with one another, how do we, as the Body of Christ, convince them of the truth, beauty and goodness of the Church?

Bishop Barron: I grew up in the 1970s in the midst of a Church bickering with itself — especially over sex and authority. I’m not saying that those questions weren’t important or that those who entered into those conversations weren’t serious, but I am indeed saying that a divided Church is evangelically uncompelling. I wish that all of us in the Church could admit that our house is on fire and that we should all do everything we can to work together to put the fire out. Something that particularly annoys me is that Catholics fall, over and over again, for the oldest trick of the devil — namely, to move away from what should be our common mission and commence to fight among ourselves. We should announce, by the beauty of our lives, the joyfulness of our witness, the intelligence of our preaching and teaching, the Christ who has beguiled us. That will draw people in.

Our Sunday Visitor: What role do you think technology — cellphones and social media, specifically — has played in driving a wedge between people and the practice of religion? How can the Church help?

Bishop Barron: Like all finite things, these technologies can be abused, but I actually see them as an extraordinary opportunity. At precisely the moment when so many are moving away from our Churches, we have the means, through social media, to reach into their world. Every Catholic parish should become a center of missionary activity, and every Catholic parish should have a website that features not just information, but real evangelical material: sermons, apologetics, cultural commentaries, opportunities to field and answer questions. I just did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), and it proved to be the third most popular offering of the year, just after Beto O’Rourke and Bill Gates. It drew over 15,000 questions and comments. This confirms that young people, even those who have wandered far from our churches, are still massively interested in religious issues. Let’s use these extraordinary tools we have now to engage them.

Our Sunday Visitor: Despite the bleak news, when you spoke to the bishops in June, you offered some signs of hope. Can you describe some of these?

Bishop Barron: The rise of the new atheism and the surge in the number of “nones” have indeed awakened a number of Church leaders to develop new apologetic strategies, new approaches, fresh ways of being present to young doubters and seekers. As I just mentioned, consider the overwhelming number of people — especially young people — who engage religious issues online. Even when they swear and fuss and fight, they’re still coming to talk.

Our Sunday Visitor: What specifically can bishops do to help further engage the unaffiliated and bring them back to the Church? What can the everyday Catholic in the pew do?

Bishop Barron: Many of the “nones” are distinctly uneasy with our sexual teaching, but they respond positively to the Church’s stress on social justice and care for the poor. Bring forward our great social teaching tradition, talk about advocates for the poor from John Chrysostom to Dorothy Day. Moreover, get young people involved in work on behalf of the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, etc. Second, I would stress what Pope Francis has called the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty). Our postmodern culture tends to get defensive when we lead with the true (here is what you should believe) or even more so when we lead with the good (here is how you should behave), but they are less threatened, more attracted, when we lead with the beautiful. So, show them the Sistine ceiling and Chartres Cathedral; invite them to read Dante and Flannery O’Connor; explain the Basilica of Sagrada Familia to them. And on a more popular level, introduce them to colorful devotions, processions, liturgical practices. These are beautiful, too — and strangely alluring.

OSV: Do you have anything to add?

Bishop Barron: I think every parish should have, for the next 10 years, round-the-clock Eucharistic adoration, during which good people pray for the return of the unaffiliated.


Mark Gray“The decline in affiliation is largely concentrated among millennials (and presumably the younger iGen). Generational replacement is happening as older religious people pass away and younger less religious people are becoming adults.

“Note that there is not a large increase in atheists or agnostics. Instead there is just a growing number of people who don’t see themselves as members of a regular religious community. … There is always the possibility that this is, in part, a life-cycle effect, and that as the millennials and eventually iGen age, they may become more religious. That is hard to predict, though.”

Mark Gray, a senior research associate and director of CARA Catholic Polls at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University


Munoz-Visoso“We’re seeing an overall trend of disaffiliation from organized religion in general in the United States, so the Catholic Church has not been exempt from that trend. And with Hispanics, we have seen a generational change. The data shows us that the majority of Hispanics in the United States are not immigrants. They’re U.S.-born, and in that sense, they are subject to the same cultural influences, forces and distractions as any other young person who grows up in this culture.

“You have large numbers of Latinos who, for one reason or another, have fallen away from the Catholic Church and other religious denominations. But then again, you have a lot of young people who are actually very energized. They are ready. They are prepared, and all they’re asking is for room at the table, for opportunities to engage, to serve and participate in decision-making. I think we need to tap into this potential before they slip away, too.”

Maria del Mar Muñoz-Visoso, the executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


William Dinges“When you’re talking about the nones or disaffiliates, all you know in one sense for certain is that it means they are not institutionally connected. Their common mantra is, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’ It’s not like the vast majority of this population are atheists. One has to be somewhat nuanced in how you’re describing this group.

“The fact that people disaffiliate from a particular tradition does not mean they don’t or won’t come back at some point. I would argue most of them don’t, but there are some who do, so it’s not as if this is a one-way ticket, if you will.

“A life-cycle dynamic used to be assumed among Catholics, where you grow up in a religious family, you go to church, then you get into your teenage, young adult, college years, and you disaffiliate. The typical pattern has been that when people get married and have kids, they return. But the problem with that is you can’t assume that anymore in regards to Catholics.

“First of all, younger Catholics today are waiting longer to marry, which is to say they’re away from the Church for longer periods of time. Also, the number of interfaith marriages have been steadily increasing, so increasing numbers of them are marrying non-Catholics. And a good number of them, even when they marry another Catholic, it’s often not within the Church’s sacramental context. They don’t have a wedding Mass. So, the old idea of, ‘Well, they’ll be back when they get married and have kids’ — you can’t assume that anymore.”

William Dinges, a religious studies professor at The Catholic University of America

Our Sunday Visitor Staff

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