In an era of decline in the number of Catholics, Theology on Tap appeals to the Church’s future: young people

By Larry Urish     6/14/2015

It’s no secret that Mass attendance has been on the decline and that the number of Americans who consider themselves to be Catholic has dropped. While 23.9 percent of Americans (54.3 million total) identified themselves as Catholic in 2007, that figure dipped to 20.8 percent (50.9 million) in 2014, the Pew Research Center reported last month.

Losing 3.4 million Catholics over a seven-year period is significant, and many believe that Catholicism should be presented in a way that more effectively appeals to the future of the faith: its youth.

Theology on Tap, programs of informal lectures sponsored by Catholic dioceses around the country, is doing just that – and, by all indications, very successfully. Since it began in Chicago in 1981, it has grown to more than 180 locations in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The lectures, presented by prominent spiritual leaders and academics, deal with current topics in faith and daily life that are relevant to young adults in their 20s and 30s. The friendly gatherings are noted for their casual venues, such as bars and restaurants.

One example is the Valliant Brewing Company, in Orange, which has welcomed Orange County Theology on Tap (theologyontapoc.org) on Wednesday evenings every few months, ever since the group was organized a year and a half ago by Father Andrew Bartus, a priest at Blessed John Henry Newman Church in Irvine.

“We want to teach faith in an informal setting,” Father Andrew says. “Being informal is a big part of the appeal. And while we mostly get young adults, it’s open to any age and any faith.”

Nobody was sure how many people would show up to the first Orange County Theology on Tap event. To everyone’s surprise, 50 to 60 people attended. Now, every gathering brings in an estimated 150 to 200 thirsty souls.

“People start to gather around 6:30,” Bartus says. “There’s always a food truck at the location; we use a variety of them. [Attendees] order beer, and soft drinks are also available. Everyone socializes.”

Around 7:30, Father Andrew introduces the speaker for the evening. He or she talks for 35 to 40 minutes. A brief Q-and-A takes place, followed by more socializing.

Topics at past Orange County Theology on Tap events have included Protestantism and Catholicism: An Engineer’s Approach; Waking Up Your Relationship With Christ; The Eucharist: Broken and Blessed; and Homosexuality and the Church.

“My favorite topic dealt with proof of the existence of God through physics,” says Joseph Cinemato, a 27-year-old who runs his own video/photo production company. “A Jesuit priest [Father Robert Spitzer, of the Magis Institute] talked about the existence of God from a logical, scientific standpoint. It was really fascinating.”

Cinemato noted that he would like to see more of what he calls “hot-button topics” discussed at Theology on Tap gatherings: women in the priesthood, married ordination and defense-of-life issues (abortion, natural family planning and contraception).
“My favorite element of Theology on Tap is that it brings together many young adults in Orange County for fellowship, and to get to know Catholics in a more hip and exciting environment,” he says. “It’s the kind of environment that we’re going to in our own personal and secular lives, but here we do so in a Catholic setting.”

That’s exactly what Father John Cusick of the Archdiocese of Chicago had in mind 34 years ago when he co-founded Theology on Tap with Father Jack Wall.

“My fear is that contemporary Catholicism is one built on function without form,” Cusick told AmericanCatholic.org. “The function is getting the job done, getting the children educated, getting the sacraments ministered, making sure there are enough ministers on Sunday and weekend Masses and all that – but the form is missing. People will constantly say, ‘We don’t have young adults in our community.’ You may not have them in the pews, but don’t say they’re not in the neighborhood.”
Attendees have talked about going deeper into their faith because of Orange County Theology on Tap, says Father Andrew. “And I do recall talking to a couple of people who reconsidered their view of Catholicism as being a religion that’s hostile to science, after attending Father Spitzer’s talk.”

Like so many others, Cinemato enjoys Theology on Tap’s unique blend of religious discourse and informal socializing.
“The Church is not a Sunday gathering in a building,” he says. “It’s a universal movement in the world. Our friends, our family, our workplace, our daily lives –that’s where we should be encompassing the Church. We need to make the Church part of every day in our lives.

“Theology on Tap is just friends hanging out with friends with a beer, but we’re connecting at a higher level.”
Next on tap: a new Sunday program founded by Father Andrew. It serves up a deeper discussion about the topic that was featured at the previous Theology on Tap gathering. As one would guess, Theology on Perk’s furnished drink: coffee.