Catholicism is one of the largest religious denominations in the world, with over 1 billion adherents globally. However, like many religious groups, the Catholic church has seen declines in membership and attendance in recent decades, especially in developed Western countries. This raises the question: at what age do people typically leave the Catholic church?
In the opening paragraphs, it’s useful to provide some quick background facts to contextualize the rest of the article:
- There are approximately 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide as of 2020, representing around 17.7% of the global population.
- The Catholic church accounts for over 50% of all Christians.
- In the United States, there are approximately 51 million adult Catholics, making up about 20% of the adult population.
With this global scale and reach, trends in Catholic retention and disengagement by age group reveal a lot about the overall health and viability of the church. Examining the age at which baptized Catholics stop identifying with or participating in the faith provides insight into where and why the church is struggling to maintain membership.
Age Trends in the U.S.
In the United States, surveys and studies consistently show people leaving the Catholic church in young adulthood. Some key patterns:
- About 13% of Americans are former Catholics, meaning they were baptized and raised Catholic but no longer identify with the faith.
- The median age of former Catholics is 35 years old.
- Approximately 32% of former Catholics left the faith before reaching the age of 18.
- Another half (48%) stopped identifying as Catholic between the ages of 18 and 35.
- Only 20% left after the age of 35.
This data indicates that if Catholics remain engaged in the church through high school, they are unlikely to leave later in life. The 18-35 age range represents a crucial window where people question, examine, and make decisions about religious identity. This is likely driven by several social factors common in young adulthood, such as:
- Leaving home and distancing from family traditions.
- Forming new communities and relationships in college or career contexts that may not share religious background.
- Decreased reliance on family support structures.
- Asking existential questions about purpose, meaning, and belief.
If a person remains Catholic through this period of change and independence, they tend to retain that identity for life. However, failure to engage young Catholics in their late teens through thirties means the church loses nearly half of each generation.
Comparing Christian Denominations
How does the Catholic retention pattern compare to other major Christian traditions in the U.S.? The following table summarizes the median age and share of former members among the largest denominations:
|Median Age of Former Members
|Share of U.S. Adults Who Are Former Members
This makes it clear that the Catholic church struggles the most with early disengagement, losing members decades before most Protestant denominations.
There are a few possible reasons for this disparity:
- Catholicism has more demanding requirements than many Protestant faiths regarding sacraments, Mass attendance, parish membership, and life milestones like marriage and baptism.
- The Catholic church has stricter stances on social issues like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage that conflict with young adults’ values.
- Scandals regarding clergy sexual abuse have disproportionately impacted the Catholic community.
- Protestant evangelical culture may provide tighter social bonds and community engagement.
In combination, these factors mean young Catholics reach an early tipping point where conflicting priorities outweigh their ties to the institutional church.
We can further break down the age effect by looking at retention rates and Mass attendance across generational cohorts:
Pre-Vatican II (born before 1943)
This generation grew up with traditional Catholic devotional practices and an insular, ethnic parish experience. Their formative years preceded the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s.
- Over 80% still identify as Catholic.
- 64% attend Mass at least weekly.
Vatican II Generation (born 1943-1960)
They experienced Vatican II’s liturgical and theological shifts as young adults. Today they are pillars of an aging Catholic population.
- 63% identify as Catholic, down nearly 20 percentage points.
- 41% attend Mass weekly, a 23 point drop.
Post-Vatican II (born 1961-1981)
The first generation fully formed after Vatican II, they came of age when Catholic identity was less centralized and more individualistic.
- Only 45% retain Catholic identity today.
- Just 28% attend Mass weekly, half the rate of their parents and grandparents.
Millennials (born 1982 and later)
Now the largest generational group within the Catholic church, their religious tendencies still emerging:
- Around 50% identify as Catholic, showing slight improvement versus Gen X.
- 36% attend Mass weekly, up 8 percentage points from Gen X.
Millennial patterns give hope that the historic exodus from the Catholic church may be slowing. Yet engagement still remains far below pre-Vatican II levels. Reaching young adults remains a pressing priority.
Catholic attrition in young adulthood is even more pronounced outside the U.S.
Catholicism’s centuries-long history in Europe does not necessarily translate to loyalty today:
- Between 2005-2019, countries across Europe saw those identifying as Catholic drop by an average of 12%.
- Less than 1 in 5 Catholics in France, Belgium, Spain and other nations now attend Mass weekly.
- The median age of European Catholics is 45 and rising.
This collapse of faith and practice stems largely from the rapid secularization of European society since the 1960s. The combination of socialist politics, loss of cultural authority, and growing pluralism has displaced the Catholic church from public life.
Long a Catholic stronghold, Latin America is shifting as evangelical Protestantism makes dramatic inroads:
- 40% of Guatemalan Catholics have left the faith, most converting to evangelicalism.
- Catholic affiliation in Brazil plummeted from 92% to 65% since the 1970s.
- Nicaragua saw Catholic identification fall from 58% to 40% between 1991 and 2008.
Pentecostalism’s charismatic worship, close-knit community, and populist messaging appeals to the poor and working classes turning away from Catholicism’s hierarchy.
In Africa and Asia, however, Catholic loyalty remains high amidst overall Christian expansion. The global church is pivoting increasingly to the southern hemisphere.
Examining age patterns makes it clear that young adulthood represents the Catholic church’s biggest challenge worldwide. While retention rates vary between generations, countries, and demographic groups, the 18-35 window consistently shows the steepest losses.
Reversing this trend will require significant focus on engaging adolescents and young Catholics in their faith journey and community life. Renewed commitment to youth ministry, campus outreach, young adult programming, and social justice advocacy offer potential solutions.
On a theological level, the church must also continue adapting its message and moral teachings to align with the realities faced by modern young people. While traditions may persist, doctrines and practices disjoined from contemporary issues ring hollow. Lifelong faith hinges on relevance.
Only by stemming the tide of youth disengagement can Catholicism stabilize and grow its community in the decades ahead. Paying attention to when and why people currently leave offers critical insights into a more promising future.