Bishop Barron discusses the estrangement of young former Catholics today

Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, delivered the keynote address for the Cultures of Formation Conference on March 5. In his address, he explained the reasons young people leave the Church, and offered his suggestions to encourage young people to rediscover their faith. The Cultures of Formation Conference was held in anticipation of the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, which will take place this October.

Professor John Cavadini, founder of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, introduced Bishop Barron. Cavadini described Word on Fire as “a global media ministry which has been spreading the message of the New Evangelization since its founding.” He called Bishop Barron “the foremost hero of the New Evangelization.”

Bishop Barron began with his conviction that the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment is more important than the two previous synods of the family. He said, “I think the theme being discussed at the upcoming synod, namely youth, and how we galvanize the youth, how we draw them back into the Church…is a far more pressing issue for the global Church, but most especially for the Church in the West.”

The title of Bishop Barron’s lecture was “Looking for the Nones.” Bishop Barron described the “Nones” as “people who say ‘none of the above’ when asked what their religion is.” He said, “We’ve been much chagrined by the nones. Over 50% of those 30 or younger have left the Church.”

Bishop Barron described the Church as Pope Francis envisions it: “Pope Francis spoke famously of a Church that goes out from itself to the margins… He desired an outreach to those, who are for a variety of reasons, alienated from God.” He characterized Francis’ perspective of the Church as a field hospital, calling the Church “not a clinic, where mild infections are addressed, but rather of a hospital situated close to a field of battle.”

Bishop Barron explained that even objections and questions posed by individuals estranged from the Church are spiritual longings. He based this view on research by Notre Dame Professor of Sociology Christian Smith. The research by Christian Smith and his colleagues at Notre Dame seeks to understand the reasons estranged Catholics have for leaving the Church.

Through his research, Smith came to the conclusion that most individuals who have left the faith still believe in some version of God. Bishop Barron said this reveals these individuals’ hunger for God and their faith. He said, “Anyone doing this realizes that behind the very questions that even the most aggressively anti-religious young people pose is indeed a spiritual longing and fascination.”  

Christian Smith’s research also came to the conclusion that “Formerly Catholic emerging adults tend to be uncomfortable with firm statements about who or what God is.” According to Bishop Barron, this is the result of the relativism prominent in our culture today. Bishop Barron called this is the “huh” or  “whatever” culture.

Barron pointed to a young former Catholic in Smith’s study who exemplifies this “whatever” culture. He said, “I’m so okay with the uncertainty. I think uncertainty is beautiful… the essence of spirituality is ‘being comfortable with questions.’”

Bishop Barron said of this young man’s response: “The quest or questions goes hand in hand with the relativism.” He continued, “I agree, uncertainty can indeed be beautiful, but a permanently open mind is not what we’re looking for.”

Christian Smith’s research also came to the conclusion that “Former Catholics, like most emerging adults, live in religiously diverse family and friendship networks.” Bishop Barron said, “The culture insists on diversity, but it never appreciates the shadow side.” He explained how the shadow side is ignored, saying that there is “this uncritical valorization of anything that smacks of orthodoxy or right belief.” He observed that many features of our political culture today, such as political correctness, has seeped into young people’s understanding of religious beliefs.

Bishop Barron stated that religion has been reduced to ethics, and the idea that “If being a good person is all that matters, why don’t you just live and let live?” Bishop Barron commented, “Regarding religion, an almost complete subjectivism holds sway.” Among young people, he pointed out, a bland indifferentism exists as pertains to religion, yet there are few who would say: “Hey, you’re a Democrat, I’m a Republican, as long as you’re a good person it’s alright.”  

Christian Smith also came to the conclusion in his research that “Former Catholics tend to describe religious faith as illogical or unscientific.” Bishop Barron said of this finding: “The number one reason that people abandon the faith is that it’s incompatible with reason.”

Scientism, which is the belief that something is not true unless it is proven true by the scientific method, holds sway over many young people, he explained. However, scientism is self-refuting because the scientific method cannot prove that scientism should be believed. “Religion and science cannot be in conflict, for God is not an item in the universe,” he said.

Barron emphasized the need to communicate the proper meaning of the word “faith,” saying that it is not simply accepting wonderful things without evidence. “Faith is never infrarational, but superrational,” said Barron. “It has not a thing in common with superstition and naïvete.” He explained that the act of faith rests upon and goes beyond what reason can attain.

According to Bishop Barron, naive approaches to the Bible, such as literalistic interpretation, also pose a problem. He quoted Father George Coyne, S.J., former director of the Vatican Observatory, who said, “Since the last book of the Bible was written around 100 A.D. and the scientific method came around 1600, it would be simply impossible for the Bible to be scientific in the modern sense of the term.”

Bishop Barron lamented the extraordinary dumbing down of the faith that has played into the loss of young people from the Church. He argued that Catholic educators have underplayed Catholic intellectualism at the catechetical level, saying, “If young people can handle Shakespeare and Virgil in High School, why can’t they read Augustine, Chesterton, or Aquinas?” He commented, “The dumbing down of Catholicism has been a pastoral disaster.”

At the end of his talk, Bishop Barron addressed vocation, stressing that a vocation is a call that calls us out of the world to right relationship with God. He said, “We need elders, those who know how to hear the voice of God. We need people to help young people hear the voice of God, when it can be exceptionally hard to hear. That’s the challenge for today.”

Bea Cuasay is a freshman studying Philosophy, Theology, and Music. She sings with the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir. If you too want to break out in song with pleno corde et voce, contact her at