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As younger Catholics drift away, the church considers what works

From left, sisters Reilly Carey and Katie Nivard, their grandmother Mary Ann Keyes, and mom Kelly Carey. The younger women have drifted away from the church their grandmother still loves.handout

A member of the so-called Silent Generation and grandmother of 13, Mary Ann Keyes is the matriarch of a big Catholic family whose ties to the Roman Catholic Church — like those of many families — have grown more complicated with each generation.

While angered and saddened by the clergy sexual abuse scandals, Keyes, whose family is based in part on the South Shore, would never walk away. “The church means everything to me,” she said.

RELATED: Francis says abuse scandals are driving Catholics away from the church

Her daughter, Kelly Carey, is 53, born between the baby boomers and Generation X. She considered stepping away after the abuse revelations of the early 2000s, she says, but weathered the scandals as a “roaming” Catholic, bouncing among different parishes in the area to hear individual priests she likes and respects.


Carey’s daughters, Katie Nivard, 31, and Reilly Carey, 24, are millennials, and their relationship to the church is more difficult. Both consider themselves Catholic, but neither attends church regularly. It is not the clergy scandals alone that have pushed them away, though that is part of it. They have also found other ways to express their spirituality and find a sense of community outside of an institution they see as out of step with the times.

“I have a lot of faith, but I don’t know that I feel as tied to the church as I have in the past,” said Reilly Carey, a Providence College graduate now studying to be a nurse. “I don’t know quite how to say this, but the church doesn’t really seem to be providing any benefit.”

“I think in a lot of ways they’ve lost their own way, and until they can find their way back I’m not sure that I’m feeling drawn to go.”


Their drift from the church illustrates clear trend lines in American religion — new generations are less observant than the ones before, a problem made worse for the Catholic Church by new revelations of clergy abuse, specialists say.

Pope Francis recognizes the problem, telling youths in Estonia last week, ‘‘We know — and you have told us — that many young people do not turn to us for anything because they don’t feel we have anything meaningful to say to them.’’

‘‘They are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them,” Francis said, in comments reported by the Associated Press.

Clergy abuse scandals exploded back into national headlines in August with the release of a damning report from a Pennsylvania grand jury that documented decades of abuse allegations and coverups. Other states have launched similar investigations, and more reports on how the church mishandled sexual misconduct allegations are likely on the way, said Daniel Thompson, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of Dayton.

“My prognosis is not optimistic,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be a tough period for the church and its outreach to young people.”

Since the 1990s, declines in religious affiliation have been driven largely by young people who are unaffiliated with any church. Around 4 in 10 young adults ages 18 to 29 are not affiliated with any religion, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s a four-fold increase from 30 years ago.


Additionally, about 13 percent of US adults identify themselves as former Catholics, while just 2 percent of adults have converted to Catholicism, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. No other religious group “has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains” due to defections, the survey found.

The younger generations driving this trend toward disaffiliation are “just aging to adulthood with less of an attachment to religion,” said Elizabeth Sciupac, a Pew research associate.

Katie Nivard, one of Keyes’s granddaughters, said she channels her faith into her work at a nonprofit focused on promoting education and health in developing countries. That mission, Nivard said, represents “the values of community that the Catholic Church preaches, and what I have been yearning for and looking for: People really living those values in action.”

“I’ve been trying to find faith and community that represent the Catholic values in different ways,” she said.

Andrew Walsh, a religious historian at Trinity College in Hartford, said that despite defections, the Catholic Church in America is still huge and “not in danger of going out of business.” Still, society’s growing secularization is worrisome for the church, a problem made worse by the clergy abuse scandal, he said.

“In an absolutely unavoidable way, every time there is a big eruption of a phase of the sexual abuse crisis, there’s a wave of abandonment of the church,” he said. “It’s likely that is what’s going to happen in the short term now.”


In 1990, about one-third of US children were Catholic, he said. That has dropped to about 20 percent today, he said, despite significant immigration from heavily Catholic Latin America.

“It is still an awful lot of children,” he said. “But especially in places like New England, it’s not going to be the kind of absolutely pervasive force it was in my parent’s generation. Look at the obituaries; the old people are all being described as devout Catholics. The young people who die are not being described that way.”

The prescription for combating the decline lies in large part not with Rome, but with local Catholic leaders inspiring young people individually, said Thompson, from the University of Dayton.

“It’s going to have to be the lay leaders — parents, teachers, local parish priests — they’re going to have to put forward models of Catholic authentic life,” he said. “If they don’t do that — if people don’t see there is any real possibility of transformation, that this whole religion stuff doesn’t actually make a difference in people’s lives — then all the policy prescriptions are not going to reach people where they live.”

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, acknowledged in a statement that “in this difficult time for the church young people have many questions and concerns.”

“We also know that in parishes, schools, and ministries across the archdiocese, young people by the thousands are proudly sharing their faith and seeking roles of greater leadership involvement, which is a blessing for us,” O’Malley said.


Mass attendance among Boston-area Catholics, though, has been “hovering around 20 percent for some time now,” down from 70 percent in the 1970s, said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese. In 2002, the archdiocese had 360 parishes, he said; today, there are 289.

In one of the expanding parishes in the Boston Archdiocese, the pastor credits its growth to the philosophy of living Catholic values. St. Patrick Parish of Lawrence offers services in three languages (English, Spanish, and Vietnamese) and is growing “every year in every metric,” said the Rev. Paul O’Brien.

Parishioners crowd vibrant and busy Masses on the weekends, he said, and the church has expanded its place in the community through its work beyond its walls.

With 75 percent of Lawrence children “at risk for hunger,” St. Patrick 12 years ago opened the Cor Unum Meal Center, a restaurant that serves free breakfast and dinner every day — 250,000 meals a year, he said.

“This parish has eliminated the reality of hunger for an entire city, for anyone who wants to be relieved,” O’Brien said. “This is how God tells us we should live. This attracts [volunteers], particularly teenagers and college-aged people.”

The church also runs a Catholic school and a basketball program that provides plenty of free food. Thousands of children have been involved, and even if they never enter the church in their youth, they may someday, O’Brien said.

“Kids don’t analyze this, but they realize that they’re loved,” he said. “And it might be that the 14-year-old doesn’t set foot into the church until he’s 24 or 34, but when he falls in love, or gets into trouble, or when he has some thought about, ‘Maybe there is something beyond just this material world, maybe there is a God?’ it is very, very likely that kid is going to walk into our church, because that kid already thinks this is his home.

“Secularism, materialism, the ridiculousness that is pulsing through social media — I don’t have some answer for how you turn around those ginormous social currents. They may never turn around. But I can tell you that if we live our faith, people come.”

Keyes, the family matriarch, pledges to stay and fight for her church, which she believes “needs to be more inclusive and more welcoming, as Jesus was.”

“I don’t think walking is the answer,” she said. “I think our church has so much good about it. And there are so many good priests. My heart is broken for these good priests.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.