Measuring the Synod on Youth: Whose seismograph?
The Synod on Youth is destined to become a microcosm of the battle between Catholics who are rich in faith and those who have become secularized. Some readers bridle when I say things like this, but while secular attitudes affect all of us to some degree, the crisis of the Church in our time—that is, the chief problem which demands renewal—is that the institutional apparatus of the Church is so deeply infected by secular values.
If you wish to argue that this is far too true of the Church in every age, I will readily grant the point. Corruption in the Church routinely takes forms similar to the prevailing faults of the culture from which she draws her members, including her leaders. The deceptive neuralgic points differ from culture to culture and, accordingly, from region to region. But the Church as a whole today is still primarily shaped—insofar as it is not shaped entirely by the Holy Spirit—by the cultural values of the dominant West.
In centuries characterized by sharp class distinctions, those values tended to favor the rise (and seduction) of Churchmen of wealth and power. In the same way, the values of our cultural elites in an ideological and media-centric age tend to favor the rise (and seduction) of those whose thought processes are comfortably in tune with what has been predetermined as both true and important in the dominant culture. But some forms of degradation are worse than others. Personal sin is one thing; the effort to justify it by diminishing Catholic faith and morals is quite another.
This is why so many Churchmen today find their moral high ground in the purification of the environment rather than in the purification of our bodies. Or in blaming sinful institutions rather than correcting sinful persons. Or in condemning clericalism (which nobody in the dominant culture values) rather than condemning homosexual behavior (which everybody in the dominant culture values).
Perceptions of Youth
It is in the nature of a Church so sweetly in tune with secular values and so horribly out of tune with Christ that we will hear much more from Catholic leaders about evils which the dominant culture already theoretically abhors (and which, therefore, require little attention from Catholics) than about evils which that culture celebrates (which, therefore, must be challenged with the light of Christ). Thus the Church becomes a self-fulfilling secular prophecy: It seeks to engage young people by championing the values the world has taught them to champion. A few decades ago we called this the need to be “relevant”.
The upshot is that huge numbers of youth inevitably find the Church profoundly irrelevant, for the simple reason that so few of her ministers offer any compelling vision for their lives. Moreover, since the Church’s witness to the truth has become so attenuated, young people already formed by secular values are impatient which the Church’s failure to fully embrace what they have already been culturally rewarded for “knowing” to be true. In sharp contrast will be the values of young people who have been deeply influenced by strong Catholic parents, or educated in the few outstanding Catholic schools, or sparked by priests and religious who are on fire with Christ’s love, or drawn into remarkable new apostolates, or, in short, have found anything to give them a compelling Catholic alternative to the reigning secular myths.
Both poles of youth will be represented at the Synod, but far too many ecclesiastical leaders will be tempted to take their cues from the youth lionized by the media, those who represent what they regard as the secular mainstream. That is why Synod fathers like Archbishop Chaput have already gone on the offensive, insisting that wherever the working document raves on about how youth are “the watchmen and seismographs of every age” or employs standard LGBTQ language to describe critical moral issues, the working document is a death trap.
Fifty years back and twenty years hence
Back in the 1960s, the world assumed that the young rebels on college campuses—in their constant denunciation of the military industrial complex and their demands for free love (and free grades)—were somehow in the vanguard of critical moral change. In reality, of course, they marched to the tune of a secularist professoriate. But the few observers with sense knew that young people who do not have to work for a living, and who have too much leisure (and too many hormones), find it far too easy to denounce the selfishness of their elders, who are so obviously guilty of a banal interest in their jobs, their comforts, and their long-term financial security.
Nothing much has changed. Young people are always comfortable in the denunciation of those whose temptations they do not yet face. Those who find virtue in that are simply blind to the reality that, ten or twenty years hence, these youthful paragons will adopt all the sinful habits of a worldly middle age. Such young people have not explored the spiritual life; they have not been schooled in moral excellence; they have not been won for Christ; and they are excessively fond of the allegedly revolutionary ideas planted almost daily by the dominant culture in their malleable minds.
Consider even this possibility: Since an “unloving” exercise of authority is inconceivable to those who have no authority to exercise, and since their culture teaches them that everything is about power anyway, young people may well learn to denounce clericalism as the cause of sexual abuse. It will be interesting to see what results most interest the current leaders in Rome.
The right perspective
Show me, rather, the young people at the Synod who are determined to resist and rise above the characteristic sins of their age group, which are youthful pride and sexual libertinism. Show me the young people at the Synod who are determined to reject what the opinion of the world makes it impossible to reject without courage, and to embrace the Christian virtues our dominant culture abhors. And show me the Synod Fathers who are both serenely and militantly imbued with that spirit of Christ which ensures absolute confidence in the ageless Faith of the Church.
It is just here that we will find a message of renewal. Here we will find the kind of leadership which can demand the return of the Church to Catholic mission. Here we will find the means to call the wayward to account, to purify Catholic formation and education, and to enlist even more young people—from every age group—to battle for the Lord.
It is time, I think, to identify the seismographs which register not the Spirit of the Age, but the Presence of God.
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