Young people can be notoriously hard to pin down statistically, and because of that stories that deal with sociological data can be frustrating. The religious education of youth touches upon how the future of the Church will look: whether less and less people will go to Mass, if we will have enough priests, if our faith will permeate the culture, etc. And how young adults believe regarding Catholic faith and morals effects the great debates that we have in the Church today.
Yesterday's article was about the same thing that I've seen in recent years: Youth love Jesus, spirituality, helping the poor; disagree with the Church on issues of morals and have little connection to the visible Catholic institution. Young priests are too conservative and don't connect.
It is depressing to hear the numbers when it comes to young Catholics, such as that only seven percent think the teaching on abortion is a core part of Catholic morality, or that the vast majority don't believe pre-marital sex is always wrong. It is, I think, a stinging indictment of Catholic religious education. While all the money and time and energy and thought were being spent on how to pass the faith on, young people passed the Church on and went into adulthood unprepared.
But what I take particular issue with in this article is the headline: "Sociologists see strong identity, less commitment in young Catholics." Do peruse the article and tell me, if you can, what exactly these young people are doing that gives them a "strong Catholic identity." I can't find it. Here's an excerpt quoting sociologist James A. Davidson:
Referring to the forum's theme, "Young Adult Catholics: Believing, Belonging and Serving," Davidson said, "Belonging is not a problem; they feel comfortable calling the church home. And I don't think serving is a problem. It's the believing that's the problem."
Young adult Catholics see the church as having "no credibility, no plausibility, no authority," he added. "They practice their faith by caring for other people."
A quote further down by a campus minister says that young people believe serving the poor is more important than Mass (as if the two are in contrast). So again, I posit, how exactly can people who have virtually no association with the Church, no participation in its liturgical or parochial life, and distrust any teaching that runs afoul of their own preferences be labeled as having a "strong Catholic identity"? It's more like they have the basic Christian building blocks and not much else. They could be members of any number of Christian denominations.
A companion story to this one, posted on The Criterion Online Edition for the next 30 days, gives a voice to some young people (voices that generally echo the story above). But the quote from one young lady really hit the nail on the head:
Carrie Gladstone of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who will graduate this year, said the Catholic Church is "the community I know I can always go back to for strength and encouragement."
But although being Catholic is "part of who I am," Gladstone said she sometimes finds it difficult to articulate why she is Catholic instead of being a member of another Christian denomination. "Some of the things I disagree with the church on are where they differ from other Christian sects," she said.
And that's my point from above. All the Scriptures do really boil down to loving God and neighbor, and all the Church's teachings come back to how we live those two commands and become saints in doing so. But that doesn't mean that all we need do is have a vague, spiritual love for Jesus and generally try to be nice to our neighbors and help out at food drives. If that's all Christianity is then we would have no real need for the Church, or her teachings, or her sacraments, or really, for that matter, for the witness of the Apostles and the Saints and the Scriptures. No need for doctrine, or dogma, or truth. Just love God and be a good person -- you figure out the rest. It's a ludicrously easy path: we chose our sacrifices and our pleasures. Keep God in mind and its fine.
I have no doubt that there are many catechists and teachers and priests who actively believe some form of this. But we owe more to our youth than to leave them with only the faintest threads of Christianity -- we owe them more than cutting away all of the history and the beauty and the truth that the Catholic Faith has brought to us in favor of vague platitudes. We know they want to love Jesus -- the hard part is helping them learn just what loving him looks like: a life of holiness, fidelity to Catholic teachings, a rich and active liturgical life, constant prayer, outreach in all ways to the least among us, etc.
If Davidson and the rest are right, and I think they are, our youth love Jesus and they love helping the poor. That's a fabulous start. But they're also hungry for more (as the article notes). We have a lot more to give, so lets show them the rest with passion and courage.