It was thought-provoking to read Bishop Frank Caggiano’s wise words at Fordham on March 12, when he said that “young people are leaving the Catholic Church not because they are angry—but because they are indifferent.” Their lack of interest, he continued, was because “there are questions unresolved, and young people simply don’t have the mental energy or desire to figure it out.” There is much to agree with here, especially the implied distinction between the attitudes of older church-going Catholics to our currently dysfunctional church and those of the younger generation who, in most cases, are not regularly practicing. In my own experience of almost 40 years teaching undergraduates, I can concur with Bishop Caggiano that anger is not a common late-adolescent response to church matters. Perhaps “indifference” is a bit soft. I would probably want to say that they aren’t angry, because they don’t care. The church doesn’t matter to so many of them, so why would they be angry? The bishop is also correct that meeting questioners where they are in a respectful and nonjudgmental posture of listening is of paramount importance. Good pastors and educators understand that, while the less successful ones trot out pat answers to questions that may not actually have been asked. To borrow from the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he is so insistent in his advice to spiritual directors that they get out of the way and allow the spirit to work on the minds and hearts of the searcher. Which means, of course, that a mentor’s patience must approximate the patience of God which, as we know, is endless. Listening, as the bishops says, can be more important than talking.
However, if young people are drifting away from the church because they don’t care rather than because they are angry, let me suggest that they don’t care because what they encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls. Young people, in my experience, are patient with imperfection but intolerant of hypocrisy. They can sure spot a phony a hundred miles away. If you don’t believe me, browse sometime on the dishonest educator’s nemesis, www.ratemyprofessors.com. Whether for good or ill, there is no parallel reviewing system for pastors and bishops. Perhaps we ought to have one? And if we did, we would see a lot of understanding of the average guy doing his best, real appreciation for the one whose openness and honesty shines through and profound distaste for pretentiousness and false pride.
What really causes young people not to care rather than be angry is that they have written the church off, too often perhaps before they have given it a real chance. I think Bishop Caggiano is onto something when he writes about the beauty of the liturgy, but you have to be in the building to appreciate it. On the whole, they are not there for several reasons. First, the liturgy is as often as not pretty routine, and while that might be fine for those of us who have the ritual deep in our psyches, it doesn’t work to entice someone in. Second, the ethical values of the young, as opposed to their occasionally amoral practices (and how different are they here than the rest of us?) are not respected within the confines of the institutional church. A particular pastor may be receptive to an individual who comes to him. But the church itself is simply inconceivably unrealistic to the majority of young Catholics on same-sex relationships, on cohabitation before marriage and on the use of birth control. Most adult Catholics shrug their shoulders at the anachronistic approach of the church on these issues and carry on worshipping, perhaps because they understand deep down that the Lord is not always in agreement with the teaching of the church. But the young don’t have that patience. It’s not so much that they are not in the church, as that the church is not in the world they live in.
All that Bishop Caggiano suggested as ways to attract the young is wise and compassionate. But I would add a few things. Most importantly, weed out hypocrisy, whether it is bishops who hide abusers or senior church leaders who manage to be simultaneously closeted gays and homophobic. Then, our ethical teaching needs to be expressed in the knowledge of human frailty and imperfection, and with the honest acceptance of difference. Do not tell people that birth control for the unmarried is always self-indulgence and not sometimes responsible. Do not assume that cohabitation is always the road to future marital ruin, since it often isn’t. And do not assume that same-sex relationships can never be as loving and fulfilling as straight ones. All this would just be more fake news, and the church does not need to go that way. Maybe, even, encourage gay clergy to be open about their sexual orientation. The sky will not fall in, and there could be no better way to signal to gay Catholics that the church welcomes them. There used to be, years ago and happily long-gone, a column in the Fairfield County Catholic entitled “The Narrow Gate.” Nothing could be less Catholic. As James Joyce so famously described our church, “Here Comes Everybody.” Every one of our parishes should put out that big banner you see often adorning the church buildings of the U.C.C.—“All Are Welcome.” When this is what the Catholic Church proclaims, and when it really means it, and when it has done it for a while, the young will be back. It’s not doctrine or ethics or liturgy that they find most distasteful. They know, and they want the church to know, that love has no boundaries.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.