The Mouths of Babes

Young Catholics speak up

What do Miss Wisconsin 1999, a Vietnamese immigrant, a law student, and a Catholic Worker have in common? They’re young (twenty-seven and under), they’re Catholic, and, along with 147 others, they submitted essays to Commonweal’s Younger Writers Contest (see page 14 ff.). The question that provoked these young authors’ interest: "What are the tensions and the opportunities entailed in being a Catholic in America? How does the church help or hinder you in integrating your faith with your culture, politics, imagination?"

In judging the contest, the editorial staff was struck by the variety of experiences and approaches: Miss Wisconsin wrote about her public appearances promoting chastity; the Vietnamese student, about coping with literal and cultural poverty in her adopted country. The lawyer-to-be parsed the difference between the Vatican II generation and his own: the latter no less religious but markedly less institutionally committed and informed. The Catholic Worker struggled to feel at home in his parish. A handful of adjectives kept coming to mind as the essays circulated from cubicle to cubicle in the Commonweal offices: thoughtful, energetic, serious.

Anna Nussbaum, a high school senior from Colorado Springs, Colorado, took the prize. Gorgeous prose and a novelistic approach to the question distinguished her essay in a strong field. Her "Axioms of Faith" provides a portrait of one young Catholic, representative and yet distinct. A short selection from the other contestants will be found on pages 17-18. Unfortunately, space precludes publishing more. But herewith we provide a brief collective portrait, culled from an admittedly self-selecting subset of Young Catholics (YCs). Another proviso: We suspect that our contest question, especially use of the c-word (culture), brought out a more conservative crowd than the general run of Catholic young people.

In fact, the majority of writers interpreted "culture" as a negative term. Some, borrowing John Paul II’s vocabulary, identified American culture as a "culture of death." Others denounced popular culture as the conduit of decadent sexual mores. Still others lamented the loss of a Catholic subculture rich with devotional practices, religious art, educational institutions, and jokes that would insulate them from the larger culture.

From the church (both its left and right branches), these young Catholics have apparently absorbed the message that their American culture must be opposed. But what have they learned to embrace? A sense of service, as was indicated by the number of former Jesuit Volunteers who wrote. The diversity of the American people? Definitely. American democracy? Yes. American music, movies, dance, poetry, visual arts, and literature? Well, not so clear. In the nearly 150 essays, there were only three peeps about that: welcome accounts of faith nurtured and sharpened by the art of Frank Sinatra, The Matrix, and Mark Rothko.

It would be hard to exaggerate the inspiration our essayists derive from the pope. His words and actions come to them filtered through the dominant American evangelical idiom. Young Catholics hear his jeremiads; they appear unfamiliar with other aspects of his long and complicated life, his young manhood in the theater, his early commitment to poetry and philosophy, his continuing encouragement of artistic expression.

American culture did come in for some praise, especially its opportunities for women. Here young people professed embarrassment, alienation, rage, and bemusement about the gulf between their church and their culture. As one entrant put it, "I accept women’s equality as a given: I’ve always attended coed schools, and I’ve always assumed that my classmates will have the same opportunities and desires that I have....Why would anyone not want women priests? Why would anyone oppose birth control?"

If they are unsure and skeptical about how cultural expression fits with faith, our writers were gung-ho on social service as an essential nurturer and expression of faith. The American Catholic Church, in effective teaching and programs, supports their service to the poor, imprisoned, and sick. These young people want similar, specifically Catholic structures for activism on the environment.

They also want better religious formation. Across the conservative-to-liberal spectrum, young Catholics reported being dissatisfied with their religious education. Young people see in CCD lots of good will, but little substance. Newman centers fared better, but even students committed to such centers felt ill-equipped to answer the prejudices of their fellow students that the sum total of Catholicism consists in sexual backwardness.

On the one hand, young people perceive their religious educators as out of touch with their family life, their cultural context, and the pressures both create. "The church [that] has brought so much joy into my life at times lacks a true comprehension of the reality in which I, and many other American Catholics, live." But the essayists also beg for more of what they don’t know. Many wrote because they had stumbled onto important Catholic resources—chant, modern French religious art, a form of Catholic meditation, medieval philosophy-and had been astonished. Why hadn’t anyone told them?

These essays raise many challenges for bishops, parishes, Catholic universities, Newman centers, and Commonweal. Among them: How to bring a balance to young Catholics’ conception of culture? How to recover and transmit a Catholic joy in beauty and the incarnated world? How to engage religiously, and listen to, young people embarrassed and estranged by church teachings on birth control, ordination, homosexuality? How, as winner Anna Nussbaum asks, to provide words for a Catholic dictionary of belief?

Published in the 2001-08-14 issue: 

Daria Donnelly (1959-2004) was an associate editor of Commonweal from 2000 to 2004. In 2002, after having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, she became associate editor (at large) and co-editor of the poetry section.

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