Not all young people are leaving the Catholic Church. Nor are those who stay uniformly conservative, traditionalist, or doctrinally dogmatic.
Those realities make few headlines, pushed aside by handwringing over Nones and Dones—those who claim no religious affiliation, or who are “done” with an affiliation they once claimed.
So I am gratified to read several recent articles in the National Catholic Reporter about some of the young people who choose to remain Catholic and their reasons for doing so.
First, to be clear, NCR hasn’t its head in the sand or fingers in its ears regarding the well-documented disaffiliation of young people from the Catholic Church, at a rate even surpassing that of other Christian churches.
But these articles do take issue with the one-sidedness of that portrayal.
Begins one of the articles regarding those who stay: “Almost every conversation I listen to about the future of the Catholic Church in the United States makes two assumptions. First, that the only young adults still interested in the Catholic Church are very conservative. Second, that all of the other young adults have either rejected the church or are utterly indifferent to it.” (“Young progressive Catholics really do care about the church,” Jamie Manson, May 7, 2019)
In fact, as the NCR articles document, these young Catholics want more to do with the mission of the church, not less.
“We must stop bemoaning the young Catholics who are not interested in the church and instead start to think creatively about how we offer this new generation of servant leaders the support that our institutional church will not give them,” Manson states.
As evidence of this new generation of young leaders, Manson offers the thousands of Catholic graduate students in areas of theology and ministry across the country.
We must stop bemoaning the young Catholics who are not interested in the church and instead start to think creatively about how we offer this new generation of servant leaders the support that our institutional church will not give them.Jamie Manson, NCR
“The sacrifices they make to pursue their vocations and their longings and passions for ministry shatter the narrative that progressive young adult Catholics want nothing to do with the church.”
Drilling down to particulars, Manson cites ministry efforts and organizational involvements “filled with 20-something Catholics eager to put their faith into action in some of the poorest and most broken places in our country.”
Putting “faith into action” has been the calling card of the post-Vatican II, progressive Call to Action. Founded in the late 1970s in Chicago, the Catholic church reform organization recently began a new program called Re/Generation, with the explicit purpose to build younger leaders for the organization (“Call to Action—the ‘loyal left opposition’—reorganizes amid an uncertain future,” and “Younger progressive Catholics ready to ‘regenerate’ Call to Action,” Heidi Schlumpf, May 6, 8, 2019).
Admittedly, these young justice- and reform-minded Catholics represent something of a counterculture among both their peers and society as a whole.
“Liberal, conservative or moderate — millennial Catholics have to make the decision to be Catholic in American culture where religion is a matter of choice. And they are being outpaced by the growth of the ‘nones,’ or those choosing to disaffiliate from institutional religion altogether” (“At Call to Action, younger leaders are reimagining church reform,” Heidi Schlumpf, May 10, 2019).
Which makes the ongoing engagement of some young people in institutional religion—any institutional religion—all the more exceptional.
Liberal, conservative or moderate — millennial Catholics have to make the decision to be Catholic in American culture where religion is a matter of choice.Heidi Schlumpf, NCR
So just what is it that encourages some young people to become involved in the church, and others to remain engaged? The answer to that question is neither new nor innovative, and it almost certainly doesn’t lie in church doctrine.
Jeremy Myers is faculty lead for Riverside Innovation Hub, an Augsburg University-sponsored project designed to help Minneapolis/St. Paul-area congregations “innovate new connections with young adults at the intersections of their faith and their public lives.” In a 2018 blog post, Myers explains what he calls “the Public Church Framework and the biblical imagination that serves as its engine.”
Myers writes: “We believe the good news is always Jesus Christ, but we also believe this good news of Jesus Christ will look and sound differently depending upon how individuals and neighborhoods are experiencing bad news. Young people, actually all people, will be drawn to a faith community actively engaged in proclaiming good news and challenging bad news in its neighborhood.”
And that is good news.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research