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Whither American Catholic Youth?

Mirror of Justice's Michael Perry has posted an interesting article from today's New York Times by Peter Steinfels on the pope's impact on American Catholic Youth.

While noting some interesting challenges that Benedict XVI will face, I think the article incorrectly frames the issue, especially its citation of a study find that American Catholic teenagers exhibit 5-25% less religiosity and religious knowledge than their counterparts in other faiths. The findings are not surprising and probably very accurate, but the phenomenon does not stem from John Paul II's inability to connect with these people as some have stated.

The religiosity of Catholic youth in America is actually exploding, but I would wager in the 18-35 demographic, not the teenage demographic. The reasons are many. First, a valuable distinction may lie in Michael Barone's excellent book, Hard America, Soft America. Barone argues that American youth are soft because of the economically comfortable lifestyle children live, as well as the various forms of coddling they received from their parents, schools, and the broader culture. Most teenagers are largely inept and spoiled. However, American capitalism being what it is competitively, these inept teenagers are required to grow up very fast, honing their professional skills, resume, and social acumen. Thus, while we have inept teenagers, we have thirty-year-olds who can run the world.

Translating this phenomenon into the spiritual life, we can evaluate the study Steinfels cites. Hard America forces post-teenagers, who are now on their own and must be adults, to encounter the most basic crises and challenges of human existence. Who am I? What am I about? What is my life for? How can I serve? What is happiness? And on and on. Forced to be an adult in other dimensions of their life, they encounter the existential crisis of meaning in their personal and spiritual lives. Forced to make a choice, more and more are choosing spiritual adulthood, and finding it in Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell has written an excellent book and articles on just this subject. Many young adults, confronted with the crisis of meaning thrust upon them by modern, secular civilization are embracing a life of heroic virtue and sacrifice. The Catholic Church is about the only thing left that taps into youthful idealism and also challenges persons to live a higher calling. The choice is now becoming more defined. People are embracing Christianity in a deeper way, or simply thwarting the existential questions and embracing consumerism, nihilism, and spiritual childhood. The fault lines are becoming clearer.

By contrast, teenage Catholics, who are pampered and largely immersed in the culture do not have to make these sorts of decisions. They can coast along, enjoying the myriad of pleasures and sensations that the "youth culture" affords them. Why bother taking faith seriously, especially when it is dumbed down and patronizing (and effeminate)? CCD has become (to quote Mark Shea) "cut, color, and draw." That was certainly my own experience, where CCD was mainly a forum for teaching kids to be really tolerant, sharing how mean your parents were, and going on retreats where folks smoked cigarettes for the first time and sometimes engaged in sexual experimentation. This is buttressed by banal liturgy, milquetoast spirituality, and a notion of Christian love that is all warm, fuzzy, and affirming, but not virtuous or sacrificing. It is all eros, but no agape.

But my own experience as a high school Catholic doctrine teacher shows that when you present the faith clearly, it speaks for itself and is often very inspiring. We can't and shouldn't dumb it down for folks. The faith is exciting, challenging, and fulfilling. Young people want heroism, not rainbows, puppy dogs and ice cream.

John Paul II connected with those who were truly searching. He provided answers to those existential crises (especially involving sex!) and called people to a higher existence. He had no rock star qualities in the last years of his life when many of today's young people grew to love him. It was the simple forece of his words.

Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI will clean up the institutional decay that has fostered spiritual childhood among "Soft America." The phenomenon has unfortunately created two types of Catholic young adults: those that embrace the faith and largely have to self-educate, and others who abandon the faith and fill the spiritual vacuum with the Da Vinci Code and other silliness. A big challenge lay ahead.


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