The Alienation of American Youth from the Catholic Church.

El Ignaciano is dedicating this issue to reflection on the phenomenon of the alienation of American youth from the Catholic Church.

Statistics abound to support the reality and the seriousness of this situation and there is one set of frequently cited statistics that clearly and sufficiently illustrate the situation: 

  • Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today.
  • They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. 
  • Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). 
  • Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. 
  • And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

The statistics cited in the previous paragraph become less abstract and very close at hand to anyone who attends mass regularly or has been invited to a growing number of weddings celebrated outside the sacramental presence of the Church, not to mention the declining number of vocations to the religious and diocesan priesthood.

Is it that the invitation of Jesus Christ which touched the hearts of young men and women over the centuries has ceased to have its effect? Is it that Augustine´s belief that the human person is ¨naturally¨ Christian is no longer valid? Has the power of the Gospel to address the deepest anxieties, the deepest thirst, the deepest hunger of the human heart suddenly disappeared? Yet in other parts of the world, Africa, Asia, Latin America the situation is different. What is the difference between the young people in those parts of the world and the young people in our country?

Maybe the answer to the above questions is to be found in the effectiveness, the authenticity, with which the churches in each part of the world, in each society, respond to the challenges peculiar to that society and fulfill their prophetic mission.

In America we live in a modern society which has been characterized as materialistic, dominated by consumerism, structured and defined by its worship of technology and led by an insatiable appetite for money and for the trinkets that money can buy. However accurate or inaccurate these descriptions may be, it seems evident that our young people are constantly exposed and subjected, through an ever-present social media, to a barrage of messages, both implicit and explicit, that tend to shape for them a set of aspirations, desires and beliefs. The movies, television, internet sites, Facebook, Instagram, Tumbler, as well as dating sites, all combine to present an interpretation of human life, of happiness, of human relations, of ¨success¨, that constitute what could be called the ¨gospel¨ of American society. It is not that the media invents this ¨gospel¨, rather it is a very efficient means of communicating what appear to be the dominant set of values in our society. 

Continuing to use the ¨gospel¨ metaphor, we could talk about the ¨beatitudes¨ of American society which might look something like this:

  • Blessed are the rich for theirs is everything;
  • Blessed are the strong and powerful for they shall get everyone´s attention;
  • Blessed are those who have fun for they shall not need to be consoled;
  • Blessed are the beautiful and attractive for they shall be popular;
  • Blessed are the vain and proud for they shall be celebrities;
  • Blessed are the tough for they shall not have to tolerate others.
  • Blessed are all of the above for they shall be winners.

It is the Church´s central and most important mission to take a prophetic stance in the face of such a pagan set of values.  It is the Church´s mission to be the witness for an entirely different understanding of the human person and of the meaning of life, an understanding which is not the result of ideology, but rather the result of the love that flows from a  personal encounter with the living Jesus Christ. It is only that love that can ground the authentic Beatitudes:

  • Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

It is not easy, indeed the ¨gate and the road are narrow¨, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, but such is the mission of the Church. And that mission cannot be fulfilled, that gospel cannot be proclaimed without entering through the narrow gate and walking the narrow road as a vocation that is embraced and lived in joy and generosity. Such an embrace is only possible by opening oneself, committing oneself to the love of Jesus Christ. Ignatius of Loyola captures it very well in his well-known prayer:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding,

and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

A life lived in the joy of that commitment is the only life that can authentically proclaim the gospel and its beatitudes and awaken in young women and men the awareness of the love of Jesus Christ present in their lives. Here lies the central issue of our question concerning the alienation of young people from the American Catholic Church. Has the American Catholic Church in the last 50 years lived up to the commitment that makes possible the authentic proclamation of the gospel and its beatitudes?

It is an examination of conscience centered on this question that should occupy the American Church at all levels, but very specifically at the level of the bishops.  Has a majority of bishops lived up to the commitment required to proclaim the gospel and its beatitudes? Has a majority of bishops lived in a way that reflects their embrace of the beatitudes? Has a majority of bishops chosen to live in austerity, in humble, simple houses or have they chosen to live in veritable mansions? Has their demeanor displayed gentleness, meekness, receptivity, charity or have they chosen a style more proper to captains of industry, corporate c.e.o.s or business executives? Has their main concern been to reach out to the needy, the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the persecuted, the victims of injustice, of has it been money, financial matters, the accumulation of property? Have they run their dioceses guided by a spirit of humility, generosity and self-giving or guided by the belief that the Church must be run like a business? Have they placed pastoral considerations above any other criteria, or have they placed financial considerations above pastoral needs?

Regrettably, the answers to the above questions are, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, clearly wanting. Pope Francis has pointed out and addressed once and again and in multiple forms how wanting the answers truly are. He has insisted that the ¨pastor should smell like the sheep¨, bishops should not be ¨airport bishops¨, etc. He suspended the practice of naming monsignors before the age of 55, has discouraged and openly criticized the wearing of ostentatious capes and other clerical garments. He has openly criticized the practice of charging fees for the sacraments and has consistently argued for a Church that understands itself and behaves like a ¨field hospital¨ and a Church that reaches out to the ¨peripheries¨ of society, the marginalized.

¨Clericalism¨ is the disease the Pope has diagnosed as being the cause of the tragic failure of a Church to live up to the demands of its prophetic mission. It is this failure to live up to the demands of its prophetic mission that is responsible for the alienation of young people from the American Catholic Church. It is not that the invitation of Jesus Christ which touched the hearts of young men and women over the centuries has ceased to have its effect. It is not that Augustine´s belief that the human person is ¨naturally¨ Christian is no longer valid. It is the failure of the American Church to meet the demands of its prophetic mission that is the cause of young people´s alienation. The connection between the failure of the American Catholic Church to meet the demands of its prophetic mission and the alienation of young people is better understood when one realizes that one of the consequences of such failure is the American Catholic Church´s growing reliance on a pharisaic attitude towards the complex issues of American society. This is an attitude grounded in the formalism of a legalistic understanding of Catholic life instead of on the loving heart of Jesus Christ.  What comes across to young people is not the loving heart of Jesus Christ, but the thousand chains and heavy, burdensome loads that are placed on people´s shoulders as Mathew 23:13-36 reminds us.  The contrast between those heavy burdensome loads and the easy life of those steeped in clericalism reminds one of Mathew´s words ¨you shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people´s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to¨.  Indeed, the scandals in the American Church in the last 50 years speak for themselves. Not only the scandals of the sexual abuse of minors, but the multiple scandals of the financial and life-style misbehavior of Bishops and parish priests.

It is symptomatic of the Clericalism in the American Church that it has allowed itself to nurture the seeds of schism in its bosom. It has failed to heed the call of the Holy Spirit, voiced by the Pope, to reflect on its ways and to uproot the clericalism in its midst. It has, instead, become a source of disloyal opposition to Pope Francis.

What is needed is for the American Church to step into its humility and allow the love that flows from the heart of Christ Jesus to wash over it so that a spirit of forgiveness, gentleness, meekness and hope allows it to forego the idolatry of money and power to which it has succumbed in the last 50 years. May the Church invite all young people from that position of humility, forgiveness, gentleness, meekness and hope to join the work of the ¨field hospital¨, the joy of seeking out to the peripheries, to the poor, to the marginalized and to seek above all else the kingdom and its justice. Let the young see the Church as the presence of Christ Jesus and His love, His call to forgiveness and to inclusion. Let the young see the Church not as a hanging judge wed to the worst kind of formalistic morality, but as our common savior Jesus Christ calling us all tenderly, without exception, to lead a life not of easy comfort, escapism into money and shallow and meaningless sexuality, but rather to a life filled with the meaning that comes from self-giving in service to others and surrender to the mystery of God´s Love. Let the young see in the Church the wisdom that teaches everyone the true meaning of being a ¨winner¨.