Fr. Stravinskas: Not Surprising Young Catholics Educated in Public Schools Leaving the Faith

Editor’s Note: This guest commentary by Father Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., first appeared in The Catholic Educator and is published here with permission.


Fr. Peter Stravinskas
Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Catholic Schools Week is observed this year from January 29 to February 4. It is always an opportunity to promote our schools, to thank our selfless and committed teachers and administrators, and to applaud the parents who take their faith so seriously that they make often heroic sacrifices to ensure that their children learn in an atmosphere where faith and reason are the two wings by which those children can soar heavenward, as St. John Paul II rhapsodized in Fides et Ratio (1998).

With this celebration in focus, I have come across two articles in the past two days (one in Our Sunday Visitor and the other on Catholic News Agency) sharing most distressing information. The CNA headline summarizes it clearly and painfully: “Why Catholics are leaving the faith by age 10 — and what parents can do about it.” The OSV article is actually written by Dr. Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), who guided the study which revealed the epidemic of apostasy among the youngest Catholics. According to Dr. Gray, most of these young “apostates” (and the word is not an exaggeration because they truly eschew all religious faith) find it impossible to reconcile what they are learning in science classes with Christianity.

Dr. Gray reports that “nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63 percent) said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the Faith before the age of 10.” Nor should this be viewed as some kind of adolescent rebellion, for “only 13 percent said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.”

While I consider the survey results truly distressing, I must say that I am not surprised at them —except perhaps for the youthfulness of the apostasy. However, there is also a bit of very good news in the report: Only 19 percent of the fallen-aways ever attended a Catholic elementary school, and fewer than 8 percent attended a Catholic high school. Putting it more starkly, 81 percent of the young apostates are the products of public elementary schools, while 92 percent of them come from public high schools.

Why am I not surprised? How could it be otherwise? The government schools are hotbeds of anti-religion — and have been for decades. Not only is religion ignored (thus making an institutional statement of its irrelevance), but when discussed, in all too many places it is pilloried as the cause of ignorance and war.

Following the CNA article, 31 readers weighed in on the problem. To my amazement, not a single one connected the dots appropriately, which is to say, that attendance at the government schools was the source of the problem and that, conversely, recourse to Catholic schools was more necessary than ever before in our history.

The data is clear that only a tiny minority of Catholic school alumni have forsaken Catholicism in their early years. Why is that the case? I can share several anecdotes which put flesh and blood on the assertion that, in our schools, faith and reason are friends and that religion and science are never perceived as enemies. As I have visited schools around the country to assist them in developing their “Catholicity quotient,” here are examples of what I have witnessed.

— In an elementary school, as the children are introduced to astronomy, they likewise study how stars feature in Sacred Scripture and pray the several psalms that deal with them.

— At the entrance to the science wing of a school, a life-size chart lists all the Catholic scientists in history (many of whom were clerics).

— In an opening lecture on the scientific method, the teacher (not a Catholic!) explored with the class the various ways of “knowing” or “coming to the truth.” The students identified modes of knowledge coming from theology, philosophy, art, music, love — and science. The teacher then reminded them that all these taken together bring one to the truth and that no one alone could fulfill the task.

— Three years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a week-long seminar hosted by Dr. Christopher Baglow of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. That workshop brought together 25 pairs of religion and science teachers from high schools across the country as an occasion for practitioners of both disciplines to engage each other in conversation and then to return to their schools to institutionalize their fledgling efforts. I should also mention that no Catholic school should lack Dr. Baglow’s wonderful synthesizing text on this topic: Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (published by Midwest Theological Forum).

— As an advanced biology class completed a unit on genetics, the teacher distributed Donum Vitae, the 1987 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “respect for human life in its origins and on the dignity of procreation.” Students entered into the discussion with intelligence and interest.

— After a chapter on fetology, the class was led to see that the Church’s abhorrence for abortion was grounded in sound, modern science.

— In a junior high class on evolution, the teacher skillfully wove into her presentation the various theories of evolution, the biblical data, and magisterial applications.

Now, I am sure that some readers will say, “That’s nice, Father, but not all Catholic schools are doing that.”

Let me respond in this way:

  1. No, that is certainly true. However, it is happening with sufficient frequency that the data informs us that the hemorrhaging of Catholic youth from the Church over the science-religion conflict is not occurring in serious numbers among Catholic school students.
  2. The scenarios I have depicted can be replicated in any Catholic school that wants to do so.
  3. These scenarios cannot ever take place in any government school at any time.

So, as we approach Catholic Schools Week 2017:

  1. If you have a child who does not attend a Catholic school, realize that you are jeopardizing that child’s soul by placing it in the hostile environment of government-sponsored atheism — and make the proper adjustment.
  2. If you don’t have children, visit your local Catholic school and (hopefully) be edified by what you see and respond with generous financial assistance and by serving as a public relations officer for that community of “faith, knowledge and service” (as this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week highlights).
  3. And priests/bishops: Fulfill your obligation as shepherds to warn your flock of the dangers to the sheep lurking in the government schools.


The Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas is a life-long Catholic school teacher and administrator, with doctorates in school administration and theology. Father Stravinskas is editor of The Catholic Response and The Catholic Educator, as well as executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation.

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