Why the Young Have Left Us

By Malvina Barbieri

I have been Catholic my entire life; I have taught young girls and young boys for the greater part of my adult life.   I love the Church and love my students but, more and more, for these past few years, I find those loves to be somewhat at odds.  The Church’s teaching on celibacy, homosexuality and the ordination of women is well known, if not very carefully or adequately understood: “Equally well known is the great discrepancy between official Church teaching and Catholic practice.” [Kieran Scott, Human Sexuality in the Catholic Tradition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2007), 3].  On matters touching on sexuality, the role of women in the Church and basic morality, my young charges do not so much disagree with the Church, into which they were baptized and confirmed, as find the teachings to be utterly irrelevant.  I would dare to say this holds true for many, if not most, of those in the millennial and Z generations.

The Church has witnessed a serious erosion of its teaching authority on sexual matters – at best the Church seems naive and detached, at worst abusive and dictatorial.  From the teaching on birth control to the clergy-sex abuse crisis, the Church has become, more and more, irrelevant to the moral struggles of the average Catholic.  This is especially the case among our youth, who tend to view the Church as a bastion of sexism, misogyny and elitism, as the old song goes, “one big commercial for the status quo.”  More than any generation in history, our young people see little connection between their professed faith and their positions on moral matters and social issues.  They are not so much cafeteria Catholics as Catholics who no longer find it necessary to choose off the menu.  
For example, much of the moral reasoning in Humanae Vitae is quite sound in the rejecting of a materialistic contraceptive mentality.  However, our young faithful have seemingly rejected the whole body of Catholic teaching due to the fact that some of the conclusions are so dogmatically taught, rhetorically extreme and logically unsound.  There is a kind of Catholic fundamentalism which is not biblical as is the Protestant version, but magisterial in nature – something like, the Pope says it, I believe it, that settles it: “Roma locuta, causa finita est.”  The statement, sometimes rendered as “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished” or in Latin: “Roma locuta; causa finita est.” This adage derives from a statement Augustine made early in the fifth century.  In a sermon to his flock, Augustine informed them that the pope had ratified the condemnations of the Pelagian heresy pronounced at the councils of Milevi and Carthage. He said, “The two councils sent their decrees to the Apostolic See and the decrees quickly came back. The cause is finished; would that the error were as quickly finished (Sermon 131:10).” This has developed over the centuries into the oft-cited formula.  Augustine was commenting on the authority of the pope and the fact that councils of the Church are authoritative only if approved by the bishop of Rome.  Clearly, Augustine intended this as a principle for healing disputes in the Church, not as an affirmation of absolutism with regard to the authority of the papacy. 
For example, one wonders at the absurd idea that the way one prevents conception is more morally consequential than the fact that one is trying to prevent conception in the first place.  Saying that one can prevent conception with a calendar but not with a condom or a pill is like saying one can smother someone with a pillow but not shoot them with a gun because the pillow is natural and the gun is unnatural!  ¨Why¨ one does something is far more morally consequential than ¨how¨ one does it.  Moreover, there are resources within theology which have been left untapped.  For example, the principle of “double effect” has been virtually ignored when dealing with abortion in the popular discussion.   Ask most Catholics and many priests and you will hear that the Church says that abortion is always gravely sinful, no matter what the circumstances or intentions of the act.  Catholic moral theology is not so absolute or fundamentalistic on the matter.  
Catholicism seems to have gone from a living faith and a personal encounter with Jesus to a great book of rules and regulations, prohibitions and prescriptions.  Little wonder that our young people find it to be uninspiring, oppressive and soulless.  Moreover the way in which the Church “teaches” these things is a big part of the problem.  Many priests and bishops appear pedantic, detached, self-righteous and blissfully unconcerned with the struggles of the people of God.  The overwhelming majority of our young people no longer go to confession. Why? Because they get nothing from confession.
The so-called “pastoral solution” to moral problems will, likewise, no longer serve: “Don’t ask, don’t tell, and follow your conscience.”  Homosexuals, heterosexual priests and women are told to follow their conscience but given no guidance or help in doing so.  Moreover, this “all or nothing” approach leaves the people of God without any access to the Church’s rich and wise tradition of teaching on sexuality: “American society is desperately in need of moral analysis beyond the level of bumper stickers, sitcoms and rock lyrics.” [Scott, Human Sexuality in the Catholic Tradition, 6]. The Gospel is the same, yesterday, today and forever.  However, it must be preached ever anew with language and modes of thought which are comprehensible and beautiful to the people to whom it is preached, lest it be rendered a curious antiquity and a dead letter.  
The problem is one that is rooted in an arrogant and illegitimate exercise of authority. As the old adage goes, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  Power will not heal the wound that power has inflicted.  It is high time to do some spring cleaning [aggiornamento], we must start with a church that is on the brink of an abyss because of its programmed obsolescence. Vatican II updated the language of liturgy and basic ecclesiology; now, the Church must allow those winds of change and renewal to blow through the fetid basements of moral theology and the dusty attics of canon law.  
If all we do is come up with new laws, prescriptions and penalties, we are just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.  We must dig down deep and find the best of what our tradition has to say about sexuality; we must read our great theologians with a hermeneutical focus that allows for a true “fusion of horizons” with the contemporary world and its issues and questions. If we do not find the humility, courage and faith to do so, we risk emptying the Gospel of its meaning and committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.   We must hear the siren calls of truth, faith, hope and love in the here and now … Everything else is just tuneless whistling in the dark.  The Church after Vatican II has returned to original sources and brought the fire of the Gospel into dialogue with the Modern World, on matters ranging from ecclesiology to liturgy; it is now time to allow the cleansing winds of change and renewal to affect moral theology, especially with regard to sexuality and dogmatic theology.

What would Jesus have to say about all of this?  I would bet “dollars to donuts” that it would not be what the Catechism says about homosexuality or what Canon Law says about the celibacy of priests or the ordination of women!  Morality is about perfecting our freedom and allowing the Gospel to shape and inform our deepest values, not about repressing freedom for the sake of protecting power or privilege.  As Augustine stated so perfectly, “Amor et quod vas fac … Love and do what you will.”  The Gospel is not a dead letter; the Gospel is a living Word that speaks anew in every time and age.  “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature … Be not  afraid!  I am with you always until the end of time!” [Matthew 28: 20]   

So, let us not leave it with what is wrong but let us offer some solution to these problems.  Jonathon Swift, a deacon in the Anglican Church said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate and not quite enough religion to make us love one another.”  And in another place, “Christianity has gone from a religion that wishes to cast a fire upon the earth, to one that is mostly concerned with suspecting other people of not being legally married.”  The solution is to be found in rediscovering the core of all truly religious impulses.  Religion must return to its sources in personal encounter, deep passion and living values.   
All religious persons need be wary as to their place in the institutions of Church.  As John Caputo warns: “Suppose ‘God’ stands for everything that confounds, confuses, contradicts, and scandalizes this economy, these crusts of power and privilege, this order of presence … not in order to level institutions and civilizations, but precisely in order to keep them just, to let justice reign? [Caputo, God&diff, 10]  What then?  Indeed, what then will be left for those who served the institution that adorned them with power and not the God who raised them to life? The question is not rhetorical.  What will be left for all men and women of good will is the greatest gift of all, a religion rooted in and nourished by an encounter with Jesus Christ. 
Of course, religion and institution need not be opposed but that does not mean that they are always on the same page either.  If I have to choose, I will always choose personal encounter with Jesus Christ over institutional fealty. Young people are not drawn to religion due to the sad fact that religion has allowed itself to be co-opted by power, wealth and authority.  Such an institutional religion of the powerful holds no attraction for the young or the young at heart.  We must return to the original sources of all religious life, which is not power but passion, not authority but the augmentation of life. The religion that our young people have rejected and are rejecting should be rejected.  If religion is about nothing but power and privilege, position and dogmatic pronouncement, it has precious little to do with the preaching of Jesus Christ.  Christianity, except in the exceptions of the saints, has not been tried and found lacking; it has simply been left untried. 

If we spoke to our young people with passion and fervor about justice, mercy and love, things would be very different.  Nietzsche dead-panned, “The last Christian died on the cross.”  If we feel even a slight sting of his barb, we have work to do.  To paraphrase Jesus, “Religion is for human being, not human beings for religion.  We old folks tend to decry the religious apathy of the young.  Instead, we should be asking ourselves how we have allowed something so beautiful, and so tender as religion to become so unappealing, stale and dry.  What is attractive, not just to young people but to all human beings, is not perpetuation of the status quo or the affected trappings of the clerical class but a passionate longing for the coming Kingdom! “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”