N.C.R Young people are not the problem

Editorial: Young people are not the problem

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If the recent conference at the University of Notre Dame — where speakers postulated reasons for young people’s disassociation from the Catholic Church — represents the approach going into the upcoming Synod of Bishops on young people, we would beg church officials to postpone the gathering.

What we heard was a familiar litany, placing blame for missing young people on:

  • Technology — specifically youths’ obsession with smartphones — which supposedly robs them of the contemplative mind and makes them “suckers for irrelevancy.”
  • An aversion to “orthodoxy,” a term the user brandished with the certainty that his strain of orthodoxy is the immutable version of the truth.
  • The “dumbing down of our faith.”
  • The pervasiveness of pornography and relativism, of course.
  • And a new danger — the “bland toleration” of diversity, a curious addition.

According to this analysis, it is the young people, not the church, who are in crisis. By this analysis, the very institution that young people find so wanting that they have nothing to do with it nonetheless knows all of the questions and has all of the answers. This analysis imagines a “kairos moment” when scales fall from young eyes that no longer gaze at screens nor at pervasive porn as they become aware of their deficiencies and their state of crisis.

What a self-satisfying assessment. And what a relief. It isn’t that healthy young people might be repulsed by the way that church leaders mishandled the sex abuse crisis for decades. Nor is it the money scandals or callousness toward gay and lesbian Catholics or the bishop-driven one-issue politics that has reduced religion and faith to a bumper sticker in the culture wars.

No, they say, the problem lies with young people who have acquired culturally influenced defects.

The cultural critique has value, of course, and the disaffection of young people from all manner of institutional involvement — from the local symphony orchestra to the Rotary Club — needs continued examination to figure out how institutions can be relevant to young people.

While dwindling numbers of Catholics are no doubt due to some extent to these social forces, there is much more to consider in the case of the church. Before becoming too convinced that the reason for the disaffection lies with everything and everyone else, church leaders need to seriously examine how their own shortcomings and failures have contributed to young people leaving the church.

It is reasonable to understand that teens and young adults, living in a civil culture that increasingly accepts their LGBT friends and family members, find unacceptable the intolerance and outright discrimination of some Catholic officials and organizations.

It is understandable that a young person would rather not be part of an institution that preaches God’s mercy but shows little mercy toward divorced and remarried parents.

Young people, especially young women, who know how their mothers and grandmothers struggled to gain equality in the wider culture, don’t care to become involved in an institution where women are marginalized. What can they think of an institution that bars women from its most important deliberative bodies while women hold the vast majority of ministry positions in parishes and dioceses?

Is it surprising that young women might avoid an institution where only men are ordained to preside over the community’s most profound moments?

Isn’t it also reasonable, speaking of vocations to the priesthood, that parents might hesitate to encourage their sons to join a clerical culture that has been depleted not only in numbers but also in credibility and moral standing?

Fear no longer works to fill the pews or keep people compliant. The people of God are looking for inspiration.

Could it be that only the tiniest representation of young people will be attracted to parishes and dioceses dominated by legalists and doctrinal “rigorists”?

Fear no longer works to fill the pews or keep people compliant. The people of God are looking for inspiration. The young — all of us really — are looking for authenticity. Examples of people who walk the faith and live the heart of the Gospel are more convincing than hours of apologetics and glitzy presentations on up-to-date delivery platforms.

Unless church leaders at the highest levels thoroughly examine how our community became so distorted — corrupt like a white sepulchre — a synod about attracting younger members will ultimately prove a waste of time and effort.

Perhaps the breathless pursuit of young people in its embarrassing obviousness should be set aside to give church leaders time for deep reflection on what it means to be authentically humble. Replace fanciful answers to questions few are asking, with a simple sign, containing one line, in each bishop’s office: “You may be the problem.”

___________________________________________________________

This U.S. ‘National Catholic Reporter’ Editorial pulls no punches in attaching the blame for the alarming dearth of young people at Mass to the reluctance of the Church itself to address the issues facing them in today’s world. Concerning, for instance, the Church’s outdated attitude towards LGBTQ people, divorcees,  and the treatment of women in the Church, here are three specific points being made :

(1) “It is reasonable to understand that teens and young adults, living in a civil culture that increasingly accepts their LGBT friends and family members, find unacceptable the intolerance and outright discrimination of some Catholic officials and organizations.” 

(2) “It is understandable that a young person would rather not be part of an institution that preaches God’s mercy but shows little mercy toward divorced and remarried parents.”

(3) “Young people, especially young women, who know how their mothers and grandmothers struggled to gain equality in the wider culture, don’t care to become involved in an institution where women are marginalized.”

The Roman Catholic Church is not alone, however, in its attitude towards the LGBTQ community. Most of our own Anglican Church Provinces around the world seem reluctant to embrace the full inclusion, for instance of same-sex partnered clergy – excepting, notably; in the U.S., Canada and Scotland; where provincial guidelines are more liberal **

While our own Anglican Churches may, in principle, be more disposed towards the equal valuation of women’s ministry – including their ordination to the priesthood & the episcopate – there is still a balance to be achieved in the actual number of women appointed to the more senior posts in the Church.

Considering the fact that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have been tethered to their conservative traditions for a much longer time that the rest of Christianity; it is not too surprising that they should be the last to give up on what they consider to be their unique hold on ancient tradition – even to the point where it may seem no longer viable in the modern world. Where, however, ‘tradition’ seems no longer to capture the imagination of our young people; perhaps this is the time to consider the adaptation of doctrine to the real needs and aspirations of the people God calls us to serve.

** The Church of England, however, has just announced the appointment of a same-sex-partnered priest (Fr.Joe  Hawes,      Vicar of All Saints’ Fulham) to be the next Dean of Saint Edmundsbury Cathedral in Ipswich. (see this link:-

http://www.cofesuffolk.org/news/article/a-priest-has-been-chosen-as-the-new-dean-of-st-edmundsbury

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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