In Their Own Words

"What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Essentially, that’s the question we posed to three living, breathing, young Catholic writers. Along with that, we asked them to respond to the typical set of questions posed to them by "older" Catholics concerning their place in the church: Are you really theologically illiterate? Disconnected from the institutional church but spiritually hungry? Devotees of the pope? Baffled by the church’s teachings on sexuality? Fundamentally no different from previous generations?

For their answers to these questions and others, read on.

The Editors

——

Natalia Imperatori-Lee

It’s a scary time to be young, but to be Catholic, too? For my generation, the intersection of these two realities means living with a high degree of ambiguity and dissonance. We are the product of the post-Vatican II church. Judging the success of the council by its fruits in this generation, I have to ask if the church that produced Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Vatican II wasn’t a better church than the one in which younger Catholics have grown up.

We are also products of the Internet: pervasive reachability, instant communication. This has spoiled us. We want the answers now. We want clarity now-the kind that the post-Vatican II church doesn’t provide. What many of us are too slowly coming to realize is that no church, not even the one before Vatican II, could ever provide the kind of blueprint for religiosity that we long for. The "manual" theology, the neatly ordered morality of the past, is a pill we can’t swallow-we are too savvy, too technologically proficient. We practice safe sex, not free love, but not chastity either.

This is an informed, information-driven generation. We know so much, we long for that which we don’t know-hence the desire for "mystery" among many young, conservative, restorationist Catholics who hunger for a past idyllic church. But once the novelty fades, will the Tridentine Mass evoke mystery, or simply more boredom? Since we don’t know any other liturgy than the reformed one, since we’re unclear on the past, and under-involved with the present reality of the parish, we often mistake non-sense for mystery.

Perhaps Vatican II doesn’t "work" for this generation because it requires commitment that’s different from the neoconservative and neodevotional. It requires intellectual commitment. Not assent, but a genuine commitment to intellectual inquiry that involves risk-deep as well as horizon-broadening risk. This kind of risk-taking produced Vatican II and its implementation by pastors and educators-the kind of risk-taking that remaining a catholic Catholic entails. I’m not sure that my generation of Catholics is up to the challenge.

There are moments when I feel that I was born at the wrong time. I belong with the generation at the first Call to Action meeting (1976). I should have studied at the Gregorian (as a woman? Maybe not). I should have been in Rome during the council. I should have been around then, to see that the church is capable of miraculous self-renewal. What happened to the days of aggiornamento-the openness of the church toward the world heralded by John XXIII and so characteristic of the council? No one’s throwing open any windows anymore-we’re closing them up and winterizing. Are we keeping the world out, or sealing the truth in?

There remains a kind of openness appropriate for "emerging" adults. It’s a difficult kind, because it requires openness to ambiguity. We need to admit that there are no easy answers. Ambiguity surrounds us, and there is no hermeneutic, no way of understanding the whole, certainly not after September 11. The hermeneutic of suspicion seems to have worn itself out-our generation is tired of suspicion, and wants what’s on the other side. But what does that look like? No one said this postmodernity thing would be easy.

Maybe every generation of Catholics goes through this. I wonder what kind of Catholics my daughters will be. Will they do laundry for priests, or be priests themselves?

——

Jeremy Langford

Those of us in our twenties and thirties have grown weary of being called "Generation X" and stereotyped as superficial, self-centered whiners. While it is true that we were reared in the aftermath of the forces that shaped previous generations-the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the turbulent 1960s, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and Watergate-we have faced battles that in some ways hit closer to home. Growing up in the sixties through the eighties, we saw unprecedented changes in the familial, political, social, and economic structures that, for the first time in U.S. history, made it likely that society’s young members might not be better off than their parents. While nearly half of us experienced the divorce of our parents-making us what I call "Generation eX"-we also experienced divorce between ourselves and our world. As child abductions, nuclear threat, drug and alcohol use, teenage sex and pregnancies, anorexia, aids, cynicism, and suicide increased, budgets were being cut and schools were falling apart. All the while the cost of college was soaring, the job market was shrinking, the cost of homes was rising, and the institutions of health care and Social Security stood on increasingly shaky ground.

Today we are faced with making sense of both the world in which we were reared and the one we are already or will soon be leading. Through my work in Catholic publishing and young adult ministry, I have come to see the very real hungers that drive my peers and me, as well as the nourishment that Scripture and tradition can provide. The insights of the bishops in "Sons and Daughters of the Light" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on the Laity) have proved most helpful. Rather than assume anything about young people, the committee followed Jesus’ lead by asking them "What do you seek?" and then boiled their responses down to four key hungers: healthy personal identity (Who am I?), intimacy in relationships (Who am I in relation to others?), meaningful work (Where am I going?), and life-giving spirituality (How do I get there?).

When it comes to how the church can feed these hungers, the challenges are clear. Those of us raised Catholic often do not have a coherent sense of what being Catholic means or how much Catholic life changed after Vatican II. We wonder whether participating in parish life and weekly Mass is essential to faith and spirituality. And we are often uncomfortable naming key experiences in our lives as "God moments."

But the good news-especially in light of 9/11-is that we are willing to seek, to ask questions, to see with new eyes, and to serve a world in need. Tired of empty promises, pervasive bad news, and partisan and special-interest politics that lead nowhere, we are open to authentic wisdom and witness of what it means to be fully alive. For me, and for many young adults, the Catholic Church is such a witness when it doesn’t offer rigid answers but embraces and provokes profound questions. When it doesn’t assess sin, blame, and punishment but calls for integration, reconciliation, and accountability. When it doesn’t exclude and divide but includes and unites. When it fights not for a fragile future as an institution but fights to be the body of Christ on earth, made up of seekers who long to see through the eyes of joy and to serve with passionate love.

——

Eileen Markey

The question for younger Catholics is not, Why do we leave the church? There are plenty of obvious reasons: patriarchy, a secular world, lack of faith, poor liturgies, homophobia. The more interesting question is, Why do we stay? I would not belong to any other organization whose practices I disagree with so much.

There are three or four reasons why we continue to call ourselves Catholic, even as we disagree with Vatican teachings on women priests, on birth control, on dissent, on homosexuality. We stay because we were raised with a high level of practice and taught the rough rudiments of theology at Catholic schools and universities. We feel a sense of ownership for the church. This is my church, and reactionary Vatican pronouncements aren’t going to get me to leave.

For many of my peers, being Catholic means being in struggle. Not only the classic struggle to know and serve God. The struggle is a fight to reform this church of ours. If we leave, we accept defeat. We stay because in remaining we add a drop of liberal thought into this sea of conservative practices.

We stay out of loyalty to a vision of what the church could be. Should be. We stay also because we are educated enough to understand that we are the church. We are able to discern which teachings are central. We are not supposed to pick and choose what we believe, but we know it is more essential to believe in the Incarnation than to believe that only men can be priests. So we stay.

But we also can’t leave.

Even if we don’t go to Mass every week, our worldview, our approach to politics, to work, to relationships, moves within a Catholic framework. It is part of our identity, from plaid jumpers in childhood, to respect for celibate, learned men, to a take on fighting poverty that is not charity but justice for fellow humans.

Many of us stay in the church because we appreciate its countercultural stance. We stay for the radical message of love and forgiveness and community. The essential teachings of the church stand in stark contrast to a cynical, consumer culture. The countercultural stances of other groups and institutions get sucked up into marketing every few months, but the church remains separate from all that. Like Catholics of any generation, we like the story. And we like the idea of something that can’t be sold.

Over the course of two thousand years, Mary has become a virgin and professors have had to sign loyalty oaths, but the story hasn’t changed. And the story of Christ and his church still resonates.

But finally, what keeps us Catholic is what makes us Catholic: the Eucharist. For all its religious, political, and personal meanings, the Eucharist is why I’ll never leave my flawed church.

The young Catholics still here stay because we assent to the community consuming God together, to the message that we are all connected, to the idea that the divine is present in all of us, and to the belief that this assent nourishes us.

Published in the 2001-11-23 issue: 

Jeremy Langford, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Sheed & Ward, is the author of God Moments: Why Faith Really Matters to a New Generation (Orbis).

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