God Save Them

It’s a verifiable fact that not all politicians are hypocrites. When they begin to worry, publicly, about what’s happening “to the children,” some are genuinely concerned. Public talk about young people, however, is often a form of ventriloquism – by which the opinions (or alleged opinions) of “youth” are used as a voice to advance things that people in authority already want to do.

The Vatican is organizing a Synod on Youth (scheduled for this October) and I’m convinced that the percentage of the people involved who are sincere is quite high, relative to the typical crop of democratic politicos. Which is why it’s counterproductive when they start using the cant of politicians about “listening,” not just doing something “for” but being “with” youth.

When I was young, I would have found this sort of thing – adults acting like they needed to learn something from me – pathetic, indeed highly suspect. Maybe young people have changed deep down, but somehow I doubt it.

Listening to young people can be a good thing – depending on who’s doing the listening, and why. Fr. James Martin “listens” to young people with various sexual disorders, particularly at events like “IgnatianQ” conferences, which are sexual and gender diversity events organized now at Jesuit universities. They’re intended to make young people think that LGBTQetc. is just fine – even fine with Jesus Himself. And that people who think otherwise are bigoted, hate-filled, un-Christian.

If he were alive today, that ex-military man St. Ignatius would doubtless take vigorous – and very different – action than his latter-day descendants about these things, which are of as great moment as the Reformation he battled, perhaps greater.

He would probably do something very much like what Karol Wojtyla, now St. John Paul, famously did with his canoeing and hiking trips – meetings with young people, which included Mass, confessions, spiritual counseling. He “accompanied” by telling the truth of Catholicism. Not browbeating but, after clearly laying out the arguments, he would tell them “you must decide” the path you will follow. That actually worked. The accompaniment moved many young people – not to accept the unacceptable, but to saving truth and action.

The world desperately needs 10,000 such “accompaniers” – today, yesterday, every year, for decades to come. Manly men not afraid to talk about submitting to God’s will; compassionate but tough-minded women who won’t shrink from countering our sad culture, even sometimes within the Church.

There’s a planning session about the Youth Synod this week – and I’m here, for the next few days, in Rome. So far, I don’t have the impression that we’ll see much of that Wojtyla-type listening and acting. (As in the past, I may post some reports here if developments warrant.) What we already have is a lot of weak sociology, as we also saw before the two Synods on marriage. No one should be surprised if this event turns into something quite different than planned.

There have been surveys of course, and there’s to be participation of young people via Facebook. As is true for almost any public question these days, it’s not very hard to make survey numbers say almost anything you want. Religious surveys are particularly tricky because who you choose to ask – serious Catholics, nominal Catholics, the spiritually indifferent – makes a big difference in results, even before the interpretative spin starts.

The most salient fact here is that young people in developed countries have been effectively catechized – by the secular state, the media, popular culture, and public schools – to be skeptical about truth claims, but to believe firmly in two things: that science has refuted religion, and the sexual revolution.

There’s been a little pushback on the sexual revolution. Some Millennials have suffered from divorce or weakened families and seem to have taken flight to more stable views of marriage and parenting. But we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about this still early trend; Eros unbound continues to tear up the social fabric of developed nations.

Millennials say, however, that the most common reason they abandon religion is that they believe “science” (and the quite useful technologies it spins off) has proven faith is an illusion. This belief is, itself, of course, an illusion, conjured up out of quite weak reasoning: you don’t have to be a believer to know that faith and science – properly understood – are two different things, neither reducible or refutable by the other.

But to understand this distinction takes some careful thinking – and where now is that taught?

Love and mercy – the field hospital in the pope’s striking image – are two fine Christian realities, and they do an end run around reflex resistance to religion. But if they don’t then go on to the main event, aren’t bolstered by some hard thinking, they won’t long remain Christian – or even realities, as we’re seeing in the increased social brittleness and angry polarization around us.

Under the circumstances, there’s a strong temptation to believe that reducing the demands of love and mercy, by downplaying their Christian foundations, will draw people in. Thomas Jefferson, no stupid man, wrote to a friend in the 1780s, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its conscience to neither kings or priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” The latest Pew Survey says Unitarians are 0.3 percent of the U.S. population – maybe 600,000 in the whole world.

There is little to be expected from the liberal path, as not only Unitarians but the liberal Protestants know. The Synod has taken on a massive task under highly unfavorable circumstances. Sure, being “with” young people may keep the usual barriers down – at first. But the harder part is what comes next – the way, truth, life.

It will be a miracle if the Synod can make progress against so much resistance, not least in the Church Herself. But as every Christian should always remember: miracles do still happen. Pray. Hard.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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