According to a Catholic News Agency report published this week, young American Catholics are “exhibiting an alarmingly casual attitude towards accepting church teaching.”
So is this a failure by young Catholics to understand church doctrine or a failure by church doctrinaires to understand young Catholics?
What puzzles the bishops is that young American Catholics “feel completely Catholic even while disagreeing with the church,” according to Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. At the most recent meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore, he summarised the responses given by young people to a survey conducted on behalf of the U.S. bishops.
For more than three years, a USCCB research group conducted a study about finding more effective ways to communicate Catholic belief. Researching a variety of segments of the U.S. Catholic population, they examined motivations, challenges, and expectations facing people in the U.S. Church. Young adult Catholics – those still in the church — stood out for their insistence on being part of the church while exhibiting a “causal disregard” for parts of Catholic teaching. If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, Archbishop Wenski said, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. “They agree to disagree with the church.”
Furthermore, the archbishop observed, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner.’”
Perhaps many bishops didn’t get the message; but shifting attitudes among young Catholics were pointed out by the Pew Research Center last year. Fully 85% of self-identified Catholics ages 18-29, for example, said in a 2014 Pew study that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with just 13% who said it should be discouraged. Older age groups were less likely to favor acceptance; but even among Catholics ages 65 and older, 57% said that homosexuality should be accepted.
One of my bishop acquaintances observed that our bishops need to teach more effectively. He would like to revamp parish and school catechetical programs so that they put more emphasis on church teaching.
I would suggest, frankly, that our bishops revamp their own leadership styles and put more emphasis on communication that starts with listening.
Speaking of listening, I wonder how many bishops were really listening to the Scriptures during their festive liturgy in Baltimore’s famous basilica. The first reading was from the letter to Titus (1:1-9), which told the assembled bishops to “appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children….”