Young People in the Church Today: No Time for Infighting

John Allen is always insightful and we’ve been talking over here about the need for peace within the Church, moving away from the divisiveness that often comes with differences of opinions.

Some of Allen’s thoughts seem like good ideas to me. Sometimes we need to surprise those with whom we disagree by taking up a position that we normally wouldn’t get behind with vigor. Allen explains:

In addition to an ecclesiology of communion, “thinking with the church,” or whatever spiritual motive one might advance, offering surprising support is also smart tactics. It means opening channels of conversation before a crisis erupts, and it would give the center-left more leverage to push back against trajectories they don’t like. As a rule of thumb, it’s generally easier to manage disagreements among friends than strangers.
To flesh out the concept, opposition to the death penalty or support for immigration reform wouldn’t count as “surprising support,” even though those positions are in sync with the bishops, because they’re what everyone expects from the center-left. However, the Catholic Health Association’s opposition to the Obama administration’s restrictive definition of a religious employer in its contraception mandate is a good case of surprising support because the CHA and the bishops famously had their disagreements over health care reform.
At least three such opportunities seem to be hanging out there like low-lying fruit.

He suggest three opportunities:
Getting behind the HHS Mandate, speaking out against anti-Christian persecution (in the developing world especially) and lastly helping the Bishops transition to a world church.

The latter two I jump on board with immediately…albeit I’m not sure how “surprising” these are. The first one, I’d tread a bit more carefully into. I think there’s a real opportunity to look at this issue in a larger context and to ask the question of whether health care should be tied to employment in the first place. I would wager that Catholics could take the lead here in getting out of that and offering their employees a higher salary and allowing them to form their own consciences and purchasing a health care plan of their own.

But there’s an even larger place where the center-left and even the center-right can meet.

It’s called Catholics for Civil Discourse. This could be a place much like the Catholic Common Ground Initiative –which had merit, but I believe that ended up as a bunch of center-left people trying to keep it afloat. Are we willing to talk things through and maybe use some principles of conflict resolution to show the world that Catholics can indeed rise above the hatred and move towards forgiveness and reconciliation of one another. I liken much of this to relationships between conservative and liberal Supreme Court Justices. Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg might agree on little but you never hear either on badmouth the other. In fact, they are close friends and they can see the other’s perspective clearly, even if they don’t share the other’s view. I suspect Ginsburg just says some days “Well, that’s Antonin all right!” and then smiles and laughs a bit. And Scalia probably says, “Well, you know how Ruth thinks. But she means well and has people’s interest at the heart and she does know the law well. Smart lady. Don’t agree with a lot of her views but she’s tough.”

Can’t we have a similar discourse in our church? More importantly, SHOULDN’T we have a similar discourse in our church?

Right now many have simply determined that neither side of the extremes needs the other. Jesus laughs at that and shakes his head and I think might even laugh and say “Dumb folks. They just don’t get it.”

Commonweal writer J. Peter Nixon gets to the heart of this argument very well in my view:

In the 1980s, center-left bishops had to listen to the center-right because they had the ear of Rome. The center-left has the ear of no one. They have nothing that the bishops really need and probably nothing that the bishops want. They have no leverage.

Allen suggests that “center left” probably describes the majority of American Catholics and perhaps a super-majority of those working in Catholic institutions, such as chancery offices, Catholic Charities, etc. This is true, but it is changing. We have had a fair amount of episcopal turnover in California in the last few years, and the trend is unmistakable. Older, largely “center-left” staff are retiring or leaving and being replaced by younger, more self-consciously “orthodox” Catholics.

It’s true that the majority of rank-and-file Catholics are probably “center left” in orientation. But what of it? Younger Catholics, for the most part, are simply not attached enough to the Church as an institution to think “institutionally” about their theological commitments. Communal dialogue is something you engage in because you have a community. The majority of younger Catholics—like a majority of younger Christians—are spiritual consumers. If they are dissatisfied, they will choose “exit” rather than “voice.”

In short, this has become an “older” person’s fight within the church. The younger folks don’t have time for such riff-raff, nor do they have the scars from past battles that left others with deep woundedness and brings them into a vitriolic reflex each time something new saddens them from ideologues on either side. The young simply want to pray, connect with Jesus, form friendships with people of honor and serve the needs of the poor. In short, they want a church they can believe in, not one that focuses on infighting.

Infighting will do us no good, even if one side wins. If the far or even center-right wins they get a smaller and more faithful to the hierarchy breed that might not be able to be evangelize or be effective. If the center-left or far left wins they’ll be confusion as to what Catholics stand for, if they even stand for anything.

The truth is that consensus is what is called for in our church. And young people may not be willing to do the work required to battle things out for a long time with people that they really might not think are worth spending all this time on. It’s just easier to leave and have a more individualistic view of religion or spirituality.

We are in tough times. One of my jobs is to try to build consensus amongst younger people of faith, even people of different faiths. But to do that, we have to first engage them in the experience of where they find God working in their lives. Personal discernment, listening to where people are finding God in their lives is a necessary first step.

From there, we just may find an opportunity to understand one another and most importantly….

To seek peace.

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5 Comments

  1. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn August 15, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Excellent post and I agree with you on almost all things. I am behind the HHS mandate issues – I agree with the bishops at large. I also agree that the whole notion of employer based health care needs examination and potential (hah -not in my lifetime) change, but until then.

    Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful and wise analysis of Allen’s piece and your own words and ideas. Thank you!

  2. I recently heard a student describe to me that Vatican II was the “old evangelization” and now
    we have the “new evangelization.” Their seems to be way too much splashing and bickering in our own baptismal pool these days. Students (and others) sometimes feel their are being judged for not being Catholic enough or in being overly Catholic. While I certainly see the Spirit at work in many aspects of evangelical Catholicism and the New Evangelization, I also have a growing concern the vast majority of people, as Allen calls them – the middle and middle-left Catholics- not finding a spiritual home in the Church these days.

    It also feels as if all these polarizations are because they mirror our political system. If the people begin to experience the Church as pushing political agendas, it might begin getting only a 11% approval rating like Congress does.
    .

  3. The problem is that “compromise” is too often code for “you give me some of what I want today, while I give you nothing, then we come back to the table tomorrow so I can demand more of what I want and still offer nothing, and we keep on doing this until I have everything I want and you have nothing, which of course will never happen because the more you give me, the more I decide to want”.

    Thus does “compromise” become a virtue whenever and wherever and on whatever issue the Left is unable to achieve its desires by main force of authority. There was no talk of “compromise” when the liturgical vandals of the 1970s had a plurality of the bishops on their side…traditionalists just had to sit down, shut up, and take it. There is no regard whatsoever to “compromise” when young-adult discussion leaders (themselves typically in their 50s and 60s at least, and invariably ensconced safely at permanent jobs with Church ministries at which they enjoy the sort of employment security that isn’t even a _fantasy_ of ordinary people anymore) fling accusations tantamount to heresy at any actual young-adult who dares to suspect that the best way to help poor people in America is to provide them simultaneously with lower-cost access to the necessities of life _and_ the means to secure productive employment.

    But now that we’ve got a more faithful translation of the liturgy, worked out by serious scholars who actually _believe_ in the teachings of the Church, and backed by command from Rome…well, suddenly it’s time for “compromise” and “dialogue” on liturgy? Now that a few bishops (although not, one will notice, the bureaucrats at the USCCB) are willing to say in public that voting for a Republican _might not_ rise to the level of mortal sin…well, that clearly means that it’s time to stop concerning ourselves with politics? Now that a few priests are willing to be so incredibly bold as to assert that the cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent children every year could be an issue on which Catholics ought to take a principled and united stand, we need to back off and make room for differences of opinion?

    No, sorry. For too long, “compromise” has meant “you’re starting to look like you might win, so now it’s time for you to give up”.

  4. You have a strange view of compromise where it always seems someone has to lose for the other to win. Can’t we have a different view where we work for consensus.

    You are the perfect example of what I’m talking about. I can hear the anger in your writing and younger people are all saying a pox on all the houses of discord.

    Before you accuse me of being some looney kumbaya liberal, let me just say the following. Some of the things you say have merit. We need to listen to one another and carefully admit what we can hold together in common before we can work on divisions. The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue is a great example of that.

  5. For the record, I don’t presume to read your mind. I don’t know you. I’ve just seen a little too much of the fruit of that sort of compromise. “Of course there’s no moral equivalency between Wal-Mart and abortion…stopping Wal-Mart is MUCH more important!” For those who want to live that life, they don’t need to get it from the Church. They can get it from television, and television is better at it.

    What the Church has is Truth. By all means, we should be ready to meet spiritual seekers where they are. But when we meet them, it’s important to give them the best of what we have. If all we offer is a vaguely incense-scented version of what they’re already getting from the rest of what’s in their lives, they have no reason to bother coming back.

    I used to be one of them. Of the Church I saw reflected in old movies, and about which my grandmother used to tell stories, I saw no sign…but there was plenty of the same sentiments one finds in secular culture. No one dressed any differently for Mass. No one knelt. None of my friends’ parents stopped presenting themselves for communion just because they were on their third spouses in ten years. No one mentioned abortion, much less birth control, although folks did sometimes sit through an extended sermon on tolerance for all points of view. And when I stopped going, no one noticed.

    And honestly, if the parish I stopped into on the way to kill myself in 2001 had been like the ones I was exposed to when I was growing up (and, for that matter, most of the ones I’ve been in since), I’d have gone through with the plan…use the bathroom, then go drive off a bridge. But it wasn’t, and so I stayed.

    “Yes, your sins are really sins, and because of them you’re not worthy of the glory of God. Guess what? That makes you just like everybody else in the world. There have only been two people in all of history who were worthy, and they’re both dead. Everybody you see in the Church is just as fallen as you are, no matter who they work for or who they vote for. Guess what else? God loves you ANYWAY! God WANTS TO FORGIVE YOU! And not only do we not have to pretend that what you know deep in your heart to be wrong is actually right, but the whole forgiveness thing can’t start until we both acknowledge that it’s wrong, and that you knew that it was wrong and did it anyway. But then, once we do, we can get right to the forgiveness. Isn’t that GREAT???!!!”

    We’ve got that. We’ve got Truth. It saved my soul (and also incidentally my life) eleven and a half years ago…I can’t be the only person it’d bring in.

    And yet too many are determined, in the name of compromise, to water it down. To pretend that what we’ve got at our core isn’t Truth-with-a-capital-”T”, but just another set of ideas we happen to think are good ones. And in the search for what’s “relevant to young people”, folks who haven’t been young in _decades_ spend their time ignoring the eternal Truth that the institution they claim to represent holds, and substitute in the same sort of pabulum that people who actually _are_ young have been getting 24/7 from the secular culture their entire lives.

    We don’t need to come to Church to socialize. We have facebook for that. We don’t need to come to Church to listen to catchy music. We have MP3 players for that. (Not to mention that the harder the Church tries to do it, the worse it gets at it.) We come to Church (those of us who do at all) for God. If the Church as an institution wants to attract more of us, it’d do well to put more public emphasis on what it has that we can’t get anywhere else.

    I’ve seen a few parishes that understand this. None of them have any shortage of young people in the pews on Sunday. I’ve seen an awful lot of parishes that still don’t understand it. Most of them are graying pretty rapidly.

    Like I said…I don’t know you. I don’t know your history. I don’t know where you come down on any of this. And I don’t presume to comment on what I don’t know about. But this is what I’ve seen, and what I’ve encountered. Use my experience, or not, as seems wise to you.

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