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Posted November 14, 2007

Seeking the Outlines of the Church of Tomorrow

From the CARA Report
Georgetown University cara@georgetown.edu
Phone: 202-687-8080

“What will the next generation of Catholic be like? Will they have a strong sense of Catholic identity, or will the reflect a more generic Christian identity, without the distinctiveness associated with Catholicism?

These questions are addressed in a new book by Fr. Thomas R. Rausch, SJ, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The book combines a scholarly analysis of recent research on the state of the Church, and especially its young adult members, with observations from his years of classroom experience. Several of the chapters are expanded from talks or essays Fr. Rausch prepared for other audiences, but all involve aspects of Catholic identity among young adult Catholics. He draws heavily on recent books dealing with generational change among Catholics, including The Search for Common Ground (Davidson et al., 1997), Young Adult Catholics (Hoge et al., 2001), Soul Searching (Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, 2005), and two articles that were later incorporated into American Catholics Today (D’Antonio et al. 2007).

Some of the author’s principal observations about the challenges of Catholic identity in young adult Catholics include the following, excerpted from his concluding chapter.

Lower Levels of Engagement

Soul Searching found Catholic teenagers behind Protestant teenagers by as much as 25 percentage points on various measures of religious belief, practice, experiences, and commitments. A UCLA study on the spiritual life of college students found that Catholics tended to score below the overall average on measures for religious commitment and engagement.

Inability to Articulate their Faith

Young Adult Catholics indicates that young adults are not well-versed I in the core narratives of their faith, cannot always identify what is distinctive about Catholicism, or articulate a clear Catholic identity. The authors observe that religious education in the U.S. is failing when it comes to preparing youth to articulate their faith.

Diminished Institutional Commitment

Most young adult Catholics lack a strong commitment to the Catholic Church as an institution and are less familiar with the ecclesial dimension of their faith. Most young Catholics see little connection between religion and spirituality and believe that one can be a good Catholic without participating in the liturgical life of the Church.

A Significant Minority

Not all young Catholics today are disengaged from their faith. The studies point to a significant minority, variously described as evangelical Catholics neoconservatives, or John Paul II Catholics, who are both strongly ecclesial in their faith and more traditional in its expression. A considerable number have had a Catholic version of the “born again” experience. They are more concerned with Catholic life and evangelization than with Church reform. There are also progressive young Catholics fully engaged in their faith.

A Problem of Credibility

The official Church itself has a credibility problem. A centralized authority issues pronouncements on all subjects, but few seem to be listening. There is ample evidence that the Church has a credibility problem with many of its younger members, particularly in the areas of gender equality and sexuality.

Importance of Parents and Family

With the loss of a strong Catholic subculture, whatever familiarity with the Catholic tradition young Catholics have will have to come from their homes, particularly from their parents. It is the example of their parents and their involvement in their faith communities that is most significant. They also need parishes and pastors that will welcome their energy and creativity.

Catholicism as a Way of Life

Catholicism is not just a particular church or Christian tradition; it is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, rooted in the Catholic sacramental imagination. Yet it is very different from a sentimental Deism, which posits a benevolent God who makes no demands other than to be “nice” and is always available when needed. Being Catholic means being part of God’s people, a disciple of Jesus, and member of His Body, the Church. Its mission is evangelical; it includes both proclamation and dialogue. Its ministry cannot be narrowly ecclesial. It must reach out to serve the less fortunate and make Christ’s healing presence felt in the wider world.

Strategies for Institutional Identity

Catholic institutions, particularly Catholic colleges and universities, also struggle with how to safeguard and enhance their Catholic identity today. Religious iconography, the centrality of a chapel, a clear mission statement as well as specific strategies such as hiring for mission [Catholic identity], spiritual development programs for faculty and staff, presidential assistants or vice-presidents for mission and identity can all be helpful. The growing number of Catholic Studies departments also reflects recognition of the needs of Catholic undergraduates, their lack of familiarity with Catholic theology, doctrine, and culture.

Dialogue and Participation

An increasing number of young Catholics no longer see their involvement in the life of the Church as a matter of obligation and obedience. Rather, the Church has become a voluntary society, a Church of choice, and they want it to be more egalitarian, participatory, and democratic community. Many Catholics, galvanized by the recent clergy sexual abuse scandal and the failures of authority it revealed, feel themselves called to a more adult role in the Church’s life. The Church still needs to negotiate ways to provide for some share in ecclesial decision-making by the laity and greater accountability for its bishops.

Signs of Hope

There is much life and vitality in the Catholic Church. The number of Catholics is increasing on all continents except Europe. In 2006, roughly 154,000 adults joined the Church through the RCIA. Lay ministry in the United States has exploded. There are nearly 31,000 paid lay ministers working in parishes at least 20 hours per week, 80 percent of them women, with a growing percentage of lay ministers coming from minority communities. The Catholic Church has considerable social capital in the United States as the largest single non-governmental provider of social services.

Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice, by Thomas P. Rausch, SJ, Ph.D. was published in 2006 as A Michael Glazier Book by Liturgical Press, PO Box 7500, Collegeville, MN 56321-7500