In her book The New Faithful, Colleen Carroll asserts that young Catholics take a more conservative approach to matters of faith than their elders do. According to James Davidson and Dean Hoge, that assertion is not supported by the empirical data produced in their study and earlier studies they have conducted.

One could respond to this apparent contradiction by picking a “side” and sticking to it. So-called conservative Catholics might continue to cite Carroll, while so-called Catholic liberals might point to the Davidson/Hoge data. That response would be a shame, because it would forfeit a valuable opportunity to discuss the challenges involved in handing on the faith to the next generation.

Davidson and Hoge say that “millennial” Catholics (born between 1978 and 1985) are not markedly different from the post-Vatican II generation (born between 1961 and 1977). That leaves open the question of how different the attitudes of those who grew up after the Second Vatican Council are from those who grew up before or during it. In my view, that is the crucial dividing line. I am a post-Vatican II Catholic; my students are millennial Catholics; although different in some important ways, our respective experiences of growing up in the church have more in common with each other than either does with the experience of those whose faith formation took place in the pre-Vatican II church.

I see six basic differences between younger Catholics and earlier age cohorts. First, we learned early and well that we were children of the triune God, who loved us very much, and who was truly present to us in the sacraments. The specter of a vengeful, legalistic divine judge does not haunt us the way it seems to haunt some older Catholics. Second, we really didn’t learn much doctrine. The emphasis in our catechesis was on engaging our emotions, not on challenging our intellects. Third, the coherent Catholic culture of the pre-Vatican II church had broken up by the time we came along. We do not have the Catholic-in-our-bones sensibility that characterizes both liberals and conservatives of earlier generations. Fourth, the end of the Catholic ghetto means that most young Catholics do not feel a need to prove themselves to the outside world. Fifth, our earliest experiences of the church were marked by tumult and controversy, not by stability. The church itself seems much more fragile to us than it does to our elders. Sixth, and finally, the tensions between magisterial teaching and American culture have only grown with time. Consequently, negotiating one’s dual identities as a young Catholic and a young American has also become more difficult.

What does all of this have to do with the use of the labels “liberal” and “conservative”? First, it puts them in their appropriate context. For example, older conservatives should not necessarily delight, and older liberals should not necessarily despair, if some Catholics in college or graduate school thirst for knowledge of the tradition, or enthusiastically pursue new uses for aspects of the tradition that were discarded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Given their situation, it is understandable that young Catholics will seek to acquire the basic knowledge, even the basic lore, that their grandparents take for granted. Speaking from experience, it is deeply unsettling to find oneself unable to participate in the common prayers said at the wake of a beloved relative, simply because no one had thought it important to pass them on to the next generation. But such a thirst for knowledge about the tradition, for a tangible connection with one’s communal past, does not necessarily mean that one is opposed ab initio to arguments made for its development, particularly if they are made in terms of values and virtues internal to the tradition itself. To put it bluntly, one can appreciate the value of the Latin Mass, devotions to the saints, and the penitential practice of fasting, even while viewing, with sympathy and admiration, John Noonan’s arguments for the development of Catholic moral doctrine on both contraception and the death penalty.

Second, their study suggests that we look beneath the ideological stances that divide a particular generation to find the common experiences that unite it. In teaching millennials at Notre Dame, for example, I have encountered many young students fitting Colleen Carroll’s “new conservative” profile, and also many students who seem to be more open to the currents in contemporary culture. Despite their superficial differences, a certain subgroup of each category bears a worrisome resemblance to each other on certain points. At the risk of gross generalization, if not oversimplification, I will attempt to flesh out my worries.

Let me call one segment of the more liberal group the compartmentalizers. For them, the various segments of their life are neatly divided. “Faith” is relegated to the realm of campus ministry; it takes place in their dorm Masses, in their retreats, and in their social-justice projects. They try very hard to be good people, understood in general terms. They even try to live by some of the church’s more well-known and difficult basic rules, sometimes not quite knowing why. They pray. God claims their piety, and their morality-but not their intellect. “Reason,” in contrast, is the essential tool for dealing with their life in the classroom Monday through Friday (or more accurately, Thursday lunchtime). Each class is its own hermetically sealed intellectual universe; they try to figure out the rules of that universe in order to do well on the test, in order to graduate with honors, and in order to get a job that will make them successful in the eyes of the world.

Let me call the parallel segment of the more conservative group the defenders. They view themselves almost as members of a legal team, charged with safeguarding the interests of the faith in a culture perceived as hostile to it. Taking their cue from magisterial pronouncements, they are alert for any occasion when any proposition of official Catholic teaching (as clearly set forth in the Catechism) is questioned, let alone departed from or disparaged, whether it occurs in the classroom or in the dorm chapel. On such occasions, they spring to the church’s defense, not with emotion or intimidation, but by calmly marshaling every argument available to them. They also try very hard to be good persons, but their notion of what counts as such is informed in detail by the intricacies of traditional Catholic moral teaching, canon law, and liturgical rubrics. For them, “reason” is an effective tool to be used in pinning down and defending the unambiguous claims of “faith.”

What characteristics do the defenders and the compartmentalizers have in common? First, both groups are deeply affected by the dissonance they perceive between the broader culture and the Catholic faith; one group takes a “fight” mentality, while the other prefers “flight.” Second, both groups perceive the church as fragile; the defenders spring to its aid, while the compartmentalizers refrain from impolitely agitating it.

The third common characteristic, in my view, is the most troubling. In different ways, both groups treat their intellects in an almost exclusively instrumental fashion. The compartmentalizers use intellect in order to achieve worldly success-good grades and good jobs. The defenders use intellect to protect the interests of the church. But intellect in the Catholic tradition is not merely a tool, it is a point of human contact with the divine. We can come to know God, not just propositions about God, through the activity of our intellectual life, and in coming to know God, become more like God.

In my view, the fundamental challenge we face in educating members of the next generation is helping them understand their own minds in a noninstrumental way. We can do this, by showing them how they can be fully intellectually engaged in the exploration of their faith. A crucial task, in my view, will be nurturing them in the confidence that the church, the tradition it passes on, and the God whom it proclaims, are strong, not weak. They are strong enough to deal with the difficulties and doubts that will inevitably arise in attempting to bring Catholicism and contemporary culture into an honest, open conversation. They are strong enough to deal with the questions, even the hard ones, allowing them to remain questions rather than too quickly silencing them with a pat response. The basic mode for catechesis, in my view, cannot be the detached certitude of the new Catechism, but the intellectually and existentially relentless encounter with God carried out by St. Augustine in the Confessions.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Published in the 2004-11-19 issue: View Contents
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