The past few decades, and especially the past few years, have raised concerns about Americans’ low trust in institutions and each other. For years now, we’ve heard about opinion polls that report the public’s continually declining trust in institutions such as Congress, the presidency, the news media, organized religion and many others. In recent years, political polarization has grown dramatically, leading Americans to have lower trust in fellow citizens of the opposite political affiliation.
At the end of March, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about a new Wall Street Journal poll suggesting that the value Americans place in religion, patriotism, community involvement and having children has dropped since the year 1998, by about 20 percentage points in each case. Brooks says that he understands the disillusionment, especially of younger Americans who have “grown up in a crappy time — Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump, George Floyd, the pandemic, a widespread sense that you won’t be as well off as your parents.” Positively, he points to signs of renewal in the U.S. economy and glimmers of a return to sanity in politics.
Yet, he writes, “My fear is that the latest renewal will be killed in its crib by the intractable forces of cynicism and withdrawal. My fear is that we’ve entered a distrust doom loop.” Brooks puts his finger on a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon that concerns a lot of Americans. As we know, the Catholic Church is caught up in this phenomenon, for reasons both of its making and out of its direct control.
I appreciate the tack that Brooks has taken in his writing and public speaking in recent years— seeking a capacious middle-ground conservativism, pulling back hard from the MAGA-turn of the Republican party, and introspecting about the moral and spiritual traits that are conducive to personal and social flourishing. But this gradual shift places him in the crossfire between conservatives who think he’s gone squishy and liberals who think he hasn’t atoned enough.
As to be expected, then, many of the thousand readers’ comments on his essay, coming mostly from a liberal perspective, took Brooks to task. Two matters grated on them particularly: that Brooks focused the article on patriotism and that he framed the essay as an open letter to the Zoomer generation. The first choice opens up an important conversation about what it means to be patriotic, and Brooks did his best in the limited space of an op-ed to articulate a critical and inclusive form of patriotism.
But his second choice, to write to Gen Z, is more problematic because even if trust in institutions and in some classic values is particularly low for the youngest Americans, (a) such trust is historically low across the generations and (b) young people have particular reasons to be distrustful and cynical. Brooks does acknowledge both those points, but he’s not quite able to get over nostalgia for the era in which he grew up.
As writers on this blog often point out, the younger generation of Catholics and those raised Catholic have lots of reasons to be distrustful of, or just not interested in, the Church. And this entire blog is motivated by a “Bergoglian” principle that reforming the Church authentically is not about looking back in nostalgia—which the Pope calls “the siren song of religious life”—but looking forward in hope and with courage.
As a national and global crisis, the breakdown of trust seems an overwhelming problem. But much better than asking, “So what can I possibly do about it?” is to ask, “What are we, the followers of the risen Christ, called to do about it?”
We can attend to how we are building trust within our particular relationships and local communities. As I often like to describe in my contributions to this blog, the parish has an important role to play. In 2015, a conference was held at the University of Notre Dame, which became the book Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. In her contribution to the conference and the book, Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, a student pro-life activist, said:
Understanding the important role that parishes can take in decreasing polarization in the church is an important first step. Systematic change rarely comes from a top-down approach. It is through building community and cultures that encourage respectful dialogue with whom we disagree that we can begin to see other people’s experiences…. We should want to go to Mass alongside those who make our blood boil.
Pope Francis, in his letter Rejoice and Be Glad, writes:
The common life, whether in the family, the parish, the religious community, or any other, is made up of small, everyday things … A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.
We can curse the darkness, or we can light a candle. Little acts are powerful and they do add up to something bigger. They add up if we do the small things not only one-on-one for individual people but also to build beloved communities—families, parishes, workplaces, civic organizations—that then do bigger things for even bigger communities and more people.
Let’s hope that neither the U.S. nor any other nation—nor the Catholic Church—is in “a distrust doom loop.” But even when trust is frayed and nerves are raw, the best advice is to heed the Psalmist (37:3): “Trust in the LORD and do good; live in the land and cultivate faithfulness.”
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.