Twenty-somethings and Catholicism: Reflections on the Fordham Conference (UPDATED)

I spent Friday night and much of Saturday at the "Lost?" conference at Fordham University, a conference aimed at understanding better the relationship between the Catholic Church and 20-somethings. (Read my fellow blogger Michael O'Loughlin's commentary here.) I served as moderator of a session on the church and popular culture. Here are a few thoughts in the wake of the conference, moving from appreciation to criticism to hope.

*The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture seemed to do an extraordinary job of organizing and managing a conference that had a surprisingly large attendance and a very full slate of presenters for a day-and-a-half conference. Facilitating a smooth-running conference is a refined art of high coordination, and often a thankless one, but these two Centers did it with aplomb.

*The fact that this conference was 'sold out' not only in the main auditorium but also in the overflow space probably says something important about the interest in this generation among pastoral workers, relatives, teachers, and even a clutch of 20-somethings themselves. Does it indicate an awareness of the degree of the "crisis" in the relationship between institutional Catholicism and this cohort?

*Robert Putnam of Harvard was the first at the conference to make a rather direct comment about the ethnic-racial character of the questions driving the conference: the deepest concern, he said, about Catholic affiliation and participation has to do with Anglo ("white") Catholics, not so much Latino/a Catholics. That question, of the ethnic-racial contours of who is "lost" and who is not lost among young adults (or among church leaders, for that matter), seemed to hang unresolved and underaddressed. I hope the generational questions, that have now driven the Catholic conversation for the last decade or two, will now be supplemented and in many cases replaced by questions of multiple diversities in Catholicism, as well as of white privilege in the management of the church and the structuring of the ecclesial conversations.

*The most frequent recommendation for the Catholic Church was to pay greater attention to young adults. At this conference, one could hear that the institutional church "needs to listen," that church leaders and pastoral workers "need to meet people where they are," and that what is essential is that 20-somethings "be really heard." I myself have used these phrases since I started writing about the so-called "Generation X" nearly fifteen years ago.

But after so many years of rather intensively following the conversation about Catholicism and young adults, these exhortations are, I am convinced, of quite limited value. These same recommendations were proffered ten to fifteen years ago during the "Generation X" conversations, and were said before that in the 1970s with respect to young Baby Boomers when Catholicism was flush with Vatican II.


Why do I register this note of deep skepticism? Because deep listening is predicated on a willingness to be changed by the encounter, to have one's conceptions, even basic conceptions, revised by the other (as well as a trust that the other brings this same fundamental openness). This openness, as much literature on interreligious dialogue shows, is not a weakness or a bracketing of real difference, but rather the limit-test for whether the truth of, in, and through the other can be acknowledged, and thus whether real hearing can happen. Pastoral workers and church leaders cannot advocate "meeting people where they are" if it is only to try to convince people about what "we" think we already know about God, sex, faith, justice, or whatever Catholic material we deem of urgency. "Meeting people where they are" thus always borders on patronizing: people can't "get" to where "we" are, so "we" must "go out" and meet "them."

I do not doubt the sincerity of any Catholic church worker who wants to listen more closely. Indeed, in many Catholic locales, genuine listening takes place because on the ground things are able to change, however modestly, if only in that location, in ways that are "good news" for those people. Maybe that is the best for which one can hope, that Catholic ministry in context becomes what people need for life, healing, and courage. But in doing so, perhaps more than ever, the threat to one's ministry, employment or place in the Catholic Church is likely to be put in play.

I simply do not think that "listening" is going to give us what we think it will. Of course many understand this and make their own peace or not with it. But I think it is important to speak as clearly as possible about it.

Something of this troubling dynamic was repeated in the very way the "Lost?" conference was structured: most of the dialogue was about twenty-somethings, instead of with twenty-somethings. Very few 20-somethings themselves were presenters (as distinct from respondents or excerpted in video clips). Yet each panel ended up asking for "dialogue" with twenty-somethings. We have seen this dynamic before!

How could a move to real listening be more broadly credible? The Catholic Church has to have the courage to say, and to prioritize in its doctrinal, catechetical, pastoral, and theological life, that it is not done knowing God, nor is it done knowing sexuality or salvation, among many other matters, in the light of God. Perhaps the most appropriate next official document would regard what the Catholic Church is able to admit that it does not understand.


We are reminded today in the New York Times, in a story about NASA's exploration of potential life in outer, outer space, of our tiny, even less-than-tiny, place in the universe, a place our outsize anxieties for managing religious identities has yet to catch up to. We read that that "Gliese 581, one of the nearest planetary systems" is 120 trillion miles away from us. It will take 300,000 years for current satellites to reach it. The search for life and a more realistic comprehension of our place in the universe has barely begun. The Catholic Church is in danger of being caught up in trying to manage identities that are too small for too many. The good news is that, as most readers of this blog must know, Catholicism on the ground can and does find ways to slough off this smallness, and many Catholic educators and pastoral leaders understand themselves to be doing precisely that. 

The larger church itself cannot change in ways that will speak to all Catholics today, nor in ways that will allow the majority of Catholics to become anything like the official definitions of Catholicism would prescribe. Insofar as that is true, it cannot really "listen," but no doubt we will continue to hear more of trying to "meet people where they are."

I would argue that expectations must be changed for what can happen: from waiting for church structures to change, to supporting people in making decisions for their own integrity with, within, against, and without Catholic resources.

In such work, I am inspired by David Tracy's charge, in Plurality and Ambiguity, that "theologians attempt to envision some believable hope by testing critically all religious claims to ultimate hope."

Tom Beaudoin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York


UPDATE 31 January 22:18 EST:

Some twenty-something lay ecclesial ministers (that's professional pastoral workers for those who do not know the special language) who went to the conference sent me the link to this video they made in response. Good work! Maybe there will be even more such responses.

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Juan Lino
8 years 1 month ago
Did the presenters in the conference mention any of the lay movements that the Holy Spirit has generated since Vatican II?  Many of them have tons of young people who are faithful to Christ in and through his Church without the bitterness of utopian fantasies that never did and never will materialize.
Juan Lino
8 years 1 month ago
I'm thinking of the pet causes I hear from the older people I run into in my nominally Catholic parish who lament that the Church didn't listen to the spirit of Vat 2 and become [please fill in this blank space with any of the usual pet peeves or popular 'isms' meant to remake the Catholic Church according to the current zeitgeist].  Do I really need to go on and on about tired topics of the alternate magisterium?  John Paul II the great who will be beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday spoke about them clear enough.
8 years 1 month ago
"The search for life and a more realistic comprehension of our place in the universe has barely begun. The Catholic Church is in danger of being caught up in trying to manage identities that are too small for too many."

If anything is small, it is the poitical liberalism and identity politics that motivates such commentary.

If you want to know how real "listening" works and understand of the our place in the universe, we only need to look to the "smallness" of the incarnated Christ.

According to Benedict: "Jesus is the mirror in which we come to know who God is and what he is like: through the Son we find the Father.  At the Last Supper, when Philip asks Jesus to "show us the Father," Jesus says, "He who sees me sees the Father."

"Our Father does not project a human image into heaven, but shows us from heaven - from Jesus - what we as human being can and should be like."

Is this small??? 
8 years 1 month ago
I think real listeners are those who can project to those they are trying to listen to/hear that they too are still seekers and on a journey towards a better understanding of the mysterious. 
8 years 1 month ago
"The priest's strong faith in what he teaches will, in large measure, determine how persuasively and effectively his teaching will affect the Faithful. Nothing convinces like conviction. Nothing is more persuasive than certitude. Speaking for my fellow priests and myself, if we are convinced of what we teach others to believe and carry it into practice, then the people will be able to follow, not just our words but our example. But if we fail them, God help them. That is a prayer".

As Fr. Hardon was wont to say: As the priesthood goes, so goes the Church...

John Hardon SJ
8 years 1 month ago
THE DIVERSITIES of the Catholic Church in the United States was not lost on the late and beloved Avery Cardinal Dulles. When still at the University of San Francisco, he gave an evening lecture through the Zavala Lectures (circa 1987) on the 'three models of the church' - meaning the North Atlantic Catholic Church, the Latin American Catholic Church, and the third one slips my mind. His notes on that wonderful lecture cannot be found among his papers, and I have since lost my outline for that memorable lecture. But he nailed it twenty something years ago!
Bill Mazzella
8 years 1 month ago

All of us can easily agree on your last sentence. Tom is talking about that human element in the Church which taints the message of Jesus and presses its own view on its members. A cursory reading of history will show you that too many church leaders
have been concerned more about power than the gospel. Those people prevent not only young people but all ages from coming to the gospel of Jesus.  Secondly, you hardly encourage dialogue when you characterize Tom's thoughtful as "political liberalism and identity politics." To answer with generalizations and ignore what was written above might indicate that you would rather control rather than discuss.
8 years 1 month ago
Mr. Mazzella:

The Catholic Church is in danger of being caught up in trying to manage identities that are too small for too many."

Bill, I think that we all know what this is code for...It is presicsely "political liberalism and identity politics" of many priests that have led both themselves and the faithful into sin...
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
I really good post.  I agree with this very much  ...

"The Catholic Church has to have the courage to say, and to prioritize in its doctrinal, catechetical, pastoral, and theological life, that it is not done knowing God, nor is it done knowing sexuality or salvation, among many other matters, in the light of God. Perhaps the most appropriate next official document would regard what the Catholic Church is able to admit that it does not understand."

This was the great thing about Vatican II - the willingness of many of those there to listen to others, including women and Protestants who were invited to take part, and to act on wha they heard.  I don't see it happening now, though, with the current guys in charge -  they won't listen to others in a meaningful way that carries with it the possibility of change.
Bill Mazzella
8 years 1 month ago

Throwing around terms like political liberalism and identity politics can be away to avoid dialogue. It might be more helpful to talk specifics rather than to dismiss someone's observation with labels. Secondly, Priests as well as others sin for so many reasons. No ideology has monopoly on sin. So sloganeering just does not do it. Again, can you discuss the specifics rather than engage in sloganeering? 
8 years 1 month ago
Bill, discussing the differences between traditionalists and liberals in the church is not sloganeering.

My response, in fact, was trying to reject the disinformation and "sloganerring" of the post author: "The Catholic Church is in danger of being caught up in trying to manage identities that are too small for too many."

The author declares this judgement simply because the Church does not advance the liberal causes that he prefers (we all know them).  This fact does not mean that it has a "small" message as the author would like to imply with the standard liberal anti-authority cry for liberation from tradition and obiedence.

Again, I will quote Benedict:  "If man is to petition God in the right way, he must stand in the truth. And the truth is, first God, first his Kingdom (cf. Mt 6:33). The first thing we must do is step outside ourselves and open ourselves to God. Nothing can turn out right if our relation to God is not righly ordered."

Craig McKee
8 years 1 month ago
The comments of the 20 somethings themselves on the video and in some of their post-mortem blogging reminded me of an old punch line about John-Paul II, the pope who ''SPEAKS nine languages and LISTENS in none of them!'' The same could be said (minus the multi-lingual ability!) about many of the YES-MEN he named bishops around the world.

But, on a brighter note, I was glad to discover the Liturgical Press ROCK AND THEOLOGY PROJECT:

Rock on, OSB'S! From your top man down....


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