The Catholic Millennial: a conversation with Christopher Hale
Christopher J. Hale is an American Catholic writer who serves as co-founder of the Catholic webzine Millennial Journal and executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a non-profit organization that promotes Catholic social teaching in the public square. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and the Public from Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Mr. Hale helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. His work has appeared at National Catholic Reporter, Time magazine, USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News.
On Oct. 8, I interviewed Mr. Hale by telephone about his work. The following transcript has been edited for style and length.
You are a co-founder of Millennial Journal, a webzine that features work by American Catholics of the millennial generation born during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. What do “Catholic millennials” in the U.S. look like and what do they care about?
Catholic millennials in the United States are as diverse as the nation and the church itself. The data shows us it’s more diverse than the church of the Boomers and other generations. Millennial Catholics want to move past false dichotomies that have too often characterized the Church’s debates. We’re thankful for our parents’ and grandparents’ great contributions to the church. However, many of us are tired of the polarized Catholicism that marked these generations and want to create something new. While we appreciate the great questions of the past, the tired debates of previous generations don’t have to be our own. Each generation, as Fr. Adolfo Nicolas—the Superior General of the Jesuits—reminds us, has a responsibility to re-create the faith. We can—and should—care about God’s creation and the unborn child in the womb. We can—and should—care about being faithful to church’s doctrine, while accompanying each person with love, mercy, and acceptance. The “either/or” Catholicism of the past must be left behind for a Catholicism that is “both/and.”
What is the message of Millennial and why should young Catholics read it?
The message of Millennial is that young people can speak about faith for themselves. One of the most frustrating things I see in media today is that older Catholics are constantly asked to explain the experiences of younger Catholics. I remember seeing a panel on television in 2012 where a group of Catholic leaders, all older than 50, were asked to describe how young Catholics experienced the faith. It was a valiant effort, but ultimately a failure: they didn’t describe the terrain at all. They recreated millennial Catholics in the image of themselves. Older Catholics must stop speaking in the place of young Catholics if we want future generations to keep practicing the faith and passing it on. The era of “voice for the voiceless” is over. Every generation has a voice and should be allowed to speak for themselves. If young Catholics read Millennial, they will find authentic and diverse expressions of faith that will hopefully—God-willing—resonate with their own experiences.
Why are Catholic millennials important to the U.S. Church?
Putting first things first: a church that excludes millennials is a church without a future. At this point, Catholicism is looking much older in the United States, and there’s no guarantee that younger people who have fallen away from their faith will ever pick it up again. If a young Catholic no longer practices their faith it isn’t their fault, but ours. Young Catholics are no longer knocking at the door of our churches, so we must leave the church and go in search of our brothers and sisters. We must accompany them along the way and take on for ourselves their joys and hopes, their sufferings and anxieties. The church that wins back millennials must be a pilgrim church, a people of God that encounters and engages everyone—without exception.
What is the U.S. Church doing right with millennial Catholics at this time?
They’re taking the question of millennial Catholics seriously. To respond to the needs of millennial Catholics, many dioceses and bishops are reaching out through young adult offices and other means. They’re concerned to get millennial Catholics more involved with the church. My own Archdiocese of Washington is a shining example of a local church that gets it, that is pastorally innovative, and is willing to do what it takes to give young people a chance to encounter God’s love in Jesus Christ.
What can the U.S. Church do better to engage millennial Catholics?
We need a new pastoral paradigm. Patristic and Thomistic theology was effective in previous times, but we need a new language for our own times. We need to listen to this generation’s mothers and fathers of the faith, the modern-day doctors of the church who can communicate God’s love in compelling ways. We need to take seriously the Franciscan—Pope Francis, not St. Francis—epistemology that starts with the lived experiences of people. Pope Francis’ theology doesn’t start in the sky, but with what he calls his first dogmatic certainty: that God is in every person’s life. This theology that begins from below will be effective in a millennial generation that has largely lost its capacity to even see the sky, to wonder at creation and to think deeply about issues of faith.
If we want to re-create in our people a wonder for God, let’s give them an ability to discern God’s presence in their own lives and in their own hearts. Instead of creating pastoral programs for the Catholic elite, let’s refocus our energy on the 99 percent who need to experience once more the greatest realities of our faith: We are children of God. The Lord loves us. Christ walks with us. The church cherishes us and welcomes us.
You are also executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. What is the goal of your work there?
Our job is to promote Pope Francis and the church’s social mission in American politics, media and culture. We believe that our faith can transform this nation and make of this blessed—but at times broken—nation something all the more blessed still. Our faith challenges us to make this nation more just and less cold, and our group takes up that challenge in the hopes of making the United States the nation that Jesus longs for it to be: a place where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven, and is given a name, a face and a future.
You worked in Catholic outreach for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, helping him win the Catholic vote by a small margin; but Republicans won that vote back in 2014 elections. What changed in that time period to give the Catholic vote back to GOP candidates?
It’s first important to understand that the Catholic vote is not a monolithic entity. But what I’ve found intriguing on the ground is that there’s something distinctive about Catholic voters that makes them a coveted voting bloc for both political parties. Three things in particular stick out. One, they’re much likelier to be politically engaged and informed. Secondly, they’re much less likely to be ideologues. They’re less likely to stick with their party’s agenda; Catholics are mavericks within both political parties. Catholics are much less likely to be MVP Democrats or MVP Republicans and more likely to be world-class stewards of the Gospel, which often flies in the face of both parties.
And the third thing I’ve found is that Catholics are less likely to worship political fads or dynasties. Catholics have a realistic, sober view of politics, and are going to think critically about the common good. Pope Benedict XVI said that politics, when it pretends to be salvific, actually becomes demonic. On the other hand, Pope Francis says that politics can also be one of the highest forms of love because it’s in service of the common good. So there’s a healthy skepticism among Catholics when it comes to either party trying to claim them as diehard loyalists.
I think Catholic voters had similar impulses and concerns in 2012 and 2014, but there were different candidates on the ballot in those two years. President Obama is a terrific campaigner, but he wasn’t on the ticket in 2014, when the Democrats on Capitol Hill led the party standard. Many Democrats tried to separate themselves from the president during that cycle. That’s unfortunate, because the Democratic Party could learn a lot from President Obama’s inclusive political vision. The Democratic Party of 2014 lost the inclusiveness that defined their efforts.
Joe Biden said it well in his America interview last month: the Democratic Party should be a big-tent, open to people of different beliefs. He particularly noted that pro-lifers should be welcomed in the Democratic Party. He’s right. A Democratic party that welcomes everyone is a party with a bright future.
What do Democrats need to do in the 2016 election to win the Catholic vote?
The first thing Democrats need to do is to expand its governing agenda. The Democratic Party should be the party of the middle class, but, too, must be the party of the excluded as well. Pope Francis says that communities that were once marginalized are now victims of total exclusion. What were borders have become walls. Democrats should be the party that tears down the walls that promote inequality, exclusion and injustice.
Instead of promoting a political vision that starts in the middle and expands outward, progressives should heed the advice of Francis and promote a vision that begins with the excluded and goes outward from there. Practicing Francis politics isn’t just moral, but politically effective. It will win with Catholics and the entire nation.
What do Republicans need to do in the 2016 election to win the Catholic vote?
It’s very similar. I think what was problematic about Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark in the 2012 campaign was not that it was a slip-up, but that it reflected what a lot of Republicans think. Too many Americans think the Republican Party supports a social Darwinism: politics that while rewarding winner also unjustly punishes losers—even if their loss is largely out of their control. The same respect that the GOP has for the child in the womb needs to extend to other excluded populations, particularly immigrants and the LGBT community. While life begins at conception, it doesn’t end there.
What role do you see the Catholic vote playing in the 2016 election cycle?
I don’t think there’s been a more pivotal moment for the Catholic vote than this upcoming 2016 election cycle. Presidential campaigns are already looking to court the Catholic vote. I’ve talked to presidential campaigns on both sides that are trying to understand who Pope Francis is and what Catholic voters want. So I think there’s going to be a lot of candidates playing for Catholic voters in this election.
We have more Catholics running for president now than any other time in the history of the United States. This is the renaissance of Catholic political clout in the United States and a historical moment. The Catholic Church has a great opportunity in this next election to bring our distinctive concerns to the political process.
What are your predictions for the 2016 election cycle?
I don’t want to make any predictions about who will win. I do want to say that the candidate who is viewed as most inclusive will win. Among Americans right now, there’s a fear that an oligarchy of exclusion marks our nation’s politics. The winner of the 2016 election will be the person who rejects that. Here’s their inning message: I will be the president of every American. No one will be excluded under my leadership. I will work to ensure that black lives matter here, as do LGBT lives and the lives of undocumented immigrants and all those who suffer exclusion in our midst.
Some observers might label you as a “liberal Catholic” because you worked for the Obama campaign. Where do you find the greatest convergence between your politics and the Catholic faith?
First and foremost, I’m a sinner who tries to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and a loyal son of the Catholic Church. So while my creed comes before any political label, I know my political worldview will never completely measure up to the demands of the Gospel.
I think where the Democratic Party and the church line up best are on issues of economic justice, care for the environment and care for the immigrant. I believe at the heart of the progressive movement is radical inclusivity, and it’s best, the Democratic Party, is a champion of those who are excluded.
Where do you find the greatest tension between your politics and the Catholic faith?
The greatest thing that challenges my politics is my conviction that life begins at conception. I believe that protecting the lives of unborn children should be at the heart of the progressive agenda. Progressives believe that society must continually extend its embrace to all persons, no matter who they are. This radical inclusivity is at the heart of the progressive tradition. And while it sounds romantic, in practice it isn't easy. In this case, it requires progressives to acknowledge the unborn as part of an excluded community. I would like to see the party work with the Republicans and to pass bipartisan legislation is both pro-woman and pro-life.
The greatest thing that challenges my faith is my belief that the LGBT persons should experience full legal equality in the United States and across the globe. They too are an excluded community. Instead of provocatively denouncing homosexuality, I hope the entire church takes up Francis’ invitation to enter into the mystery of other human beings and to accompany them, starting from their situation.
What was your impression of the pope’s recent U.S. visit?
We are a nation in dire need of Pope Francis and his prophetic message. I had the honor of walking with Francis throughout the entire American journey, and my sense was that for all the expectations that people had of this trip, Pope Francis miraculously surpassed them. I think he has reset the conversation around 2016 election. We had gotten caught up in a political sideshow—the thick of thin things. But now people are starting to talk again about the things that matter.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ biggest miracle is that for one week I didn’t see Donald Trump on television. Instead, I saw a nation rallying around this prophetic leader and his call for us to be a nation that is faithful to its founding and continues to be a nation that is for everyone a land of dreams.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
Pray for me. Pray that I’m a humble steward of the Gospel. Pray that I take up your invitation to share the joy of knowing Jesus.
Who are your role models in the faith either living or dead?
We’ve been talking a lot about Pope Francis, but my friends joke that if I had a biography it would be called “In Defense of Benedict.” I always found Benedict XVI to be a man of God who was incredibly inspiring. Though the media dubbed him “God’s Rottweiler,” he was a loving and steady pastor of the church during a turbulent time. His first encyclical “God is Love,” is one of the best essays I’ve ever read.
If you’re a fan of the Francis Revolution, then you should love Benedict, because he fired the first shot. His decision to resign was one of the most heroic acts in the history of the Catholic Church. What modern leader steps down, without a revolution or coup, voluntarily? He paved the way for the Francis revolution. His decision said that he cared more about the church than about his own power. History has a strange balancing power, and history will treat Benedict well—perhaps even better than Francis
How do you pray?
I’m Jesuit educated, so I participate in the prayer school of Ignatius. I know I encounter the Lord a thousand times a day, if only I opened my eyes to see it. Ignatian discernment helps me in this effort. It allows one takes a step back from life and sees where God is active in it. I try to pray a simple version of the Examen every night before bed. I ask myself three questions: where was God today? How did I respond? And where is God leading me tomorrow? Through such discernment and participation in the sacramental life of the church, I’m better able to see the small things of my life within the largest horizons—the horizons of the Kingdom of God.
From your perspective, what’s the greatest need in the Catholic Church today?
Pope Francis said in his 2013 interview with America that the church needs to have “a big heart open to God.” I sense that many in the church are very afraid for the future of the church and the future of the world. Many people claim confusion at Pope Francis’ dynamic leadership. Quietly, many people fear somehow Peter will lead his sheep astray. But we have to remember Jesus’ promise that he will never abandon his church. And like Jesus, Pope Francis never tires of surprising us. We should trust that the Lord has given us a good pastor who will guide us forward.
Our most important job as Catholics is to spread the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus. Jesus Christ is the pioneer and the protector of the faith. Too often we forget that. A Christian faith without Jesus and his radical mission at the center is superficial. Too often those entrusted with passing down the faith have instead reduced it to what Pope Francis calls “a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” This version isn’t a meaningful faith that provides life-long meaning for its people and that stands the test of time. It’s a faith without a future.
If Christianity is to have a renaissance in the United States, it must get back the source and the summit of the faith: Jesus Christ.
Leading with doctrinal questions instead of the person of Jesus simply will not work among today’s skeptical milennials who are constantly inundated with the false god of consumerism, empty political rhetoric, dictatorships of relativism, a historical fundamentalism, systems of ethics lacking goodness and intellectual discourse high on privilege and short on wisdom.
What do you hope people will take away from your work?
I hope I’m known as someone who, more than being defined by a political label, is defined by a strong relationship with Jesus and a deep devotion to the Catholic Church. I hope people encounter me as an authentic Christian in my work. I want to add more light and less heat to the important conversations about the role of our faith in public life. Finally, I hope to be someone who communicates in both word and deed God’s particular love for each and every person.
What’s your favorite Scripture verse and why?
It’s from the end of the Gospel of John: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” I’m particularly compelled by the relationship of Jesus with Peter. While the English doesn’t convey it well, when you read this story in the original Greek, it’s really a story of God’s mercy. It amazes me how far Jesus goes to restore his relationship with Peter, who in the biggest trial of his life, had denied him three times. This story reminds me of what Pope Francis told us at the beginning of his pontificate: “The Lord never tires of forgiving us!”
Any final thoughts?
It’s really important that we practice a “no-labels Catholicism.” The phrases “liberal Catholic” and “conservative Catholic” are much more destructive to the church than helpful. As Matt Malone, S.J., said when he took over as editor of America, Catholics need to engage the world from a place of profound unity and trust in God’s grace. We must learn to encounter other Catholics with different worldviews than our own. As Mark Shields likes to remind us, a church that spends its time fighting heretics is a church on life support, but a church that’s seeking converts is a vibrant church. Only a missionary church is able to speak the word that people in our broken world are longing to hear today.
Let’s get to work.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.