As Benedict’s visit gets closer, anticipatory commentary makes less and less sense.
(Prothero is chair of the Religion Department at BU. His column expresses a pretty thin understanding of Benedict, but I’ll just get to the end)
The point is that young people don’t relate. That young people are turned off by Church teaching. Benedict probably can’t do anything to fix that and will make it worse.
According to a recent report by the Pew Forum, Catholicism in the USA is holding steady at about 25% of the population. But underlying this calm is a lot of churn. Immigrants are flooding into the church — nearly a quarter (22%) of all U.S. Catholics were born in a foreign country, and almost half of all immigrants (46%) are Catholics. But native-born Americans are fleeing. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has lost more believers than any other religious group in recent years. Approximately 10% of Americans are former Catholics.
One problem is Catholic education. Young Catholics are shockingly ignorant of the most basic tenets of their faith. Many cannot name any of the four Gospels, or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible. To educate American Catholic youth, however, is to tell them that their church opposes premarital sex, condoms, abortion and the ordination of women — teachings that according to Sex and the Soul, a recently released study by my Boston University colleague Donna Freitas, are chasing Catholic youth out of the church in droves.
Young American Catholics treated John Paul II like a rock star. Yes, he was socially and theologically conservative, but at least they could relate to the guy with the “Popemobile” and the smile and the energy to travel to some 130 countries during his 26 years at the Holy See. But can they relate to Benedict XVI? And can he relate to them? What can a pope who is an academic theologian first and foremost offer young Americans, save for dogmas they don’t believe in and rituals they do not understand? Is he coming to scold us? Or to hug us?
We are about to find out.
Several brief points:
1) The implication is that young Catholics stop associating with the Church because of its teachings on sexuality and ordination of women. This begs the question – and an important one – do young people raised in churches that do have more liberal views on these issues stick with their churches? Do young Episcopalians stay Episcopalian, for example? Are Episcopal Churches filled with young adults?
And when young adult Catholics leave the Church, where do they go? Most don’t go anywhere, but those that do go somewhere, to another Christian body…where do they go? Repeat. Do they go to Christian denominations that are more liberal on these issues?
I have no doubt that the core of the finds Prothero cites are true – that these teachings are rejected by many young adults. But haven’t they always? (well, maybe not the ordination of women part). And what difference does it make? The implication is that the Church needs to change these teachings in order to appeal to the young. I’m sure the young (like the rest of us) also live in a way that puts to the background the Gospel mandate to live simply, not accumulate possessions or put one’s priorities and heart towards acquisition of earthly things.
Is it time for the Church to revisit that, too?
In all of this academic posturing Prothero neglects to mention the basic dynamics of young adulthood, which involve not only self-definition apart from family and parents but entrance into a busy world of work and social life that is unrelenting, busy and dedicated to creating the self as an adult in a secularist culture. It takes a lot for a young adult to see the Church as having anything to do with that. To a great extent the Church is responsible for young adults not seeing the Church as having much if anything to do with their real lives on this journey. But my point is that while some church bodies do prioritize this in their mission and do bring in young adults, all Christian church bodies are worrying about this now, because they all see essentially the same trends among young adults.
Even the Episcopalians. Believe it or not.
2) The flip side of the “youth are alienated by” question is to look at the youth who are not alienated. There are plenty of young people around in Catholic institutions. Not as many as their should be, but you know, they’re here. What do the excited, engaged Catholic young adults think about these issues?
3) Prothero is correct, of course, about religious education. Partly. What he gets wrong from his perch up there in Boston is that while Catholic kids are ignorant about their faith, it’s not because they’re being taught for 8 or 12 years all about the “hot-button” issues instead.
Yes, Catholic catechesis is a mess, as we’ve often blogged here. Prothero’s precise description of the problem is incorrect. The simple version of a very complex question is:
*Catholic catechesis tends to be thin, but I do think that evaluating the results of catechesis needs to factor in questions of whether a person being surveyed attended Catholic school or parish religious ed for twelve years and whose family was a faithful Mass-goer or went to Catholic parish religious ed for 8 and whose parents rarely took them to Mass. Filter all of that out and the picture is not quite so dismal. It’s depressing, but I think you’d find that the level of knowledge among those coming from committed families is not as bad as the total picture looks.
And the fact is that Catholic catechetical materials do tend to stress the basics of the Gospel (albeit in a truncated form) above the Church’s particular teachings on Prothero’s issues. I think Catholic catechetical materials are sorely lacking, but I don’t think that’s the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is Catholic culture. Catholic schools and parish religious education and textbooks are a relatively recent invention. How did the faith get passed on before that? Inquiring minds want to know.
(And it’s not correct to suggest that the faith didn’t get passed on , and that it was just blindly accepted by ignorant, fear driven-sheep. Research into medieval and pre-Reformation Catholicism is showing more and more that this is just not true.)
I could go on, but I’ll just finish by saying that articles like Prothero’s irritate me because they are either obtuse or disingenuous. What is his point? That the Catholic Church should, today, celebrate sex outside of marriage, abortion and start ordaining women, and that then young adults would start coming back to Church in droves?
No, I’m thinking they’d still be working ten hours a day and letting off steam with their friends afterwards, with Church as a faint memory and not a real object of desire or interest. But not because they’re mad about the ordination of women. Rather because they don’t see the connection between whatever spiritual yearnings they have and whatever church they came from. Their own liberal sexual practice (which is true of most of them) factors into that as a self-perceived obstacle, either out of guilt or conviction, but it’s really only a symptom of something deeper.
And that “something deeper” is exactly the problem Benedict has dedicated himself to addressing. From his homily at his installation Mass:
If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.
Hardliner that he is, you know.