Friday, April 13, 2012

The Church of the future.

Today's edition of the Wall Street Journal includes an op-ed by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White on the present and future face of the Catholic Church:
In his Holy Thursday homily at St. Peter's Basilica on April 5, Pope Benedict XVI denounced calls from some Catholics for optional celibacy among priests and for women's ordination. The pope said that "true renewal" comes only through the "joy of faith" and "radicalism of obedience."

And renewal is coming. After the 2002 scandal about sexual abuse by clergy, progressive Catholics were predicting the end of the celibate male priesthood in books like "Full Pews and Empty Altars" and "The Death of Priesthood." Yet today the number of priestly ordinations is steadily increasing.

A new seminary is to be built near Charlotte, N.C., and the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has expanded its facilities to accommodate the surge in priestly candidates. Boston's Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley recently told the National Catholic Register that when he arrived in 2003 to lead that archdiocese he was advised to close the seminary. Now there are 70 men in Boston studying to be priests, and the seminary has had to turn away candidates for lack of space.

According to the Vatican's Central Office of Church Statistics, there were more than 5,000 more Catholic priests world-wide in 2009 than there were in 1999. This is welcome news for a growing Catholic population that has suffered through a real shortage of priests.
Hendershott and White offer an admittedly anecdotal perspective, short on hard numbers and in need of more analysis and qualification than can reasonably be expected in a newspaper opinion piece. (In direct response to the WSJ op-ed, CARA offers more numbers and analysis on its blog.) The authors' choice of terms also invites greater scrutiny, as the precise content of words like "traditional" and "progressive" varies a lot depending on one's agenda and viewpoint.

Having offered the above caveats, I will say that I think that Hendershott and White are accurate in their general assessment of the generation gap that separates some Baby Boom Catholics from many of the most religiously-engaged Gen Y and Millennial Catholics:
. . . Many boomer priests and scholars were shaped by what they believed was an "unfulfilled promise" of Vatican II to embrace modernity. Claiming that the only salvation for the church would be to ordain women, remove the celibacy requirement and empower the laity, theologians such as Paul Lakeland, a Fairfield University professor and former Jesuit priest, have demanded that much of the teaching authority of the bishops and priests be transferred to the laity.

This aging generation of progressives continues to lobby church leaders to change Catholic teachings on reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and women's ordination. But it is being replaced by younger men and women who are attracted to the church because of the very timelessness of its teachings.

They are attracted to the philosophy, the art, the literature and the theology that make Catholicism countercultural. They are drawn to the beauty of the liturgy and the church's commitment to the dignity of the individual. They want to be contributors to that commitment — alongside faithful and courageous bishops who ask them to make sacrifices. It is time for Catholics to celebrate their arrival.
What do I make of all this? Well, as I have noted here before, I am not a Millennial. Nonetheless, I do spend a lot of time with Millennial Catholics and I can relate to them in various ways. Like their elders, Millennial Catholics inhabit a spectrum that ranges from deeply devout to practically indifferent, with many somewhere in the mushy middle. Even so, I have found that, as a group, Catholics in their teens and twenties who are religiously observant (an important qualification) tend to hem more closely to traditional doctrines and practices than members of earlier generations did at the same age. While tradition-minded Catholic teens and twenty-somethings may be a minority among members of their generational cohort, they seem to make up a larger share of church-going young people than would have been the case ten or twenty years ago - or at least that's my sense, based primarily on personal experience and others' impressions but without the benefit of statistical analysis.

Much of what I wrote in the preceding paragraph stands in need of further explanation or qualification. Even among 'observant' young Catholics, one finds a variety of groups or subcultures with widely divergent commitments, including single-issue anti-abortion activists, 'faith and justice' enthusiasts, neocon culture warriors, 'consistent ethic of life' advocates, 'praise and worship' types, and trads who prefer the Tridentine Mass to the Novus Ordo. Some actively Catholic Millennials belong to none of the preceding groups, while others may belong to more than one; the goals and priorities of some may stand in direct opposition to others, even though all are motivated by a common faith. On a basic level, all would surely affirm their support for a robust and vigorous sense of Catholic identity - even though they may disagree among themselves on some of the particulars.

All of this gives me a sense of great hope for the future of the Catholic Church. I have been heartened to see many Millennial Catholics embrace the tradition that they have received by their own choice and on their own terms, unencumbered by the neuroses that are particular to their elders. Every generation has its own conflicts and divisions - Millennials certainly have theirs, but that's a topic for another time. For now, I would simply like to sound a very hopeful note regarding the Church of the future. AMDG.


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