In Search of Young People

Note: Robert Royal will be appearing together with Fr. Gerald Murray on EWTN’s “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo at 8 PM tonight. Consult your local listings for broadcast and rebroadcast times. Shows are also available on the EWTN YouTube channel, usually a short time after the first broadcast.

Some years ago, my pastor talked me into teaching “Catholic Morals” to high-school sophomores. I can’t say that I look back to those three years with, uh, pleasure. Or satisfaction. Some of my students are still Catholic; others lapsed. The whole experience left me with profound appreciation for anyone who knows how to work with and really reach young people with the Good News in a dying culture like our post-truth West.

I’m, therefore, somewhat indulgent towards anyone who even tries to evangelize young people, especially since the dreaded Millennials have made their appearance. It’s easy to criticize failures; hard to know what to do – or sometimes even where to start. If you think you have an answer, try it out somewhere – see what happens. I’ve written here about a few outfits who may yet save us. The harvest could be great, but there aren’t nearly enough laborers (or good ideas) in the vineyard.

I also wrote almost daily about the Synod on Youth last October, with a mixture of hope about the goals and doubts about the approach. And I read Pope Francis’ Post Synodal Exhortation for that synod, Christus vivit! (“Christ Lives!”), which was released Tuesday, with similar expectations.

There are some quite moving pages in this lengthy document, encouraging young people to aspire to great things, to become themselves actors in their own stories, to speak to the Church, even when they have doubts, and be open to answers they may receive from older relatives and trusted authority figures in the Church. And above all to be open to the reality of Jesus Christ.

The Exhortation argues that the young should help teach those in the Church wedded to dead older models of outreach, how to talk to young people today. Instead of lectures on faith and morals, the young themselves should encourage the building up of communities through various groups and activities: attending to the poor and marginalized, working for social justice, developing new music ministries, liturgical celebrations, and social activities.

There’s also encouragement about seeing work – all work – as a vocation in addition to the more traditional forms of religious vocations,

This is all to the good – especially, I believe, encouraging young people who are enthusiastic about the Faith to reach out to other young people.

And to marry and form families – a need that, as I suggested to several bishops during the Synod, was being neglected.

In my view, though, there’s still not enough emphasis on not only falling in love and marrying for life, but also having children. There’s much vaguer talk about deep love generating life. But especially in the developed world, where populations are collapsing, saying explicitly that for most people their vocation will be a job, marriage, and having children would have made this document far more pointed.

One of the ironies about the exhortation is that it pretty much describes what Catholic schools and youth ministries have been doing for decades – at least in the United States – as if it’s something novel. And as potentially effective, when it’s been, in large part, ineffective. The Church here continues to hemorrhage young people.

Indeed, is there any country in the modern world where the doctrinal has been excessively and rigidly emphasized over the pastoral? Where the adults drive people away with stale repetition of morals and doctrines, and don’t put greater effort into socializing and “welcoming” than in teaching and forming?

The pope often suggests this. But my guess is: probably only rarely since Vatican II. In fact, to judge by the evidence we have of what programs seem to attract the most students and actually lead to their living authentic Christian lives, it’s the ones that combine pastoral outreach with a substantial dose of Catholic truth.

Bishop Robert Barron has been pointing out for years that the single factor most young people cite for turning away from the Faith is that they think science has made belief unbelievable.

It may very well be, as Pope Francis claims, that starting out with arguments to the contrary may put many people off. That’s only to say that we first meet people where they are. But I see the popularity among young people of figures like Jordan Peterson – and Bishop Barron himself. And it leads me to believe that many are looking for something meatier than the millionth repetition of (otherwise true) assertions that God loves us.

Christ is mentioned a lot in the Exhortation – Fr. Antonio Spadaro S.J., who probably had a hand in the drafting, has written a glowing article pointing out that not only does Christ “live” in the title, but “’Life,’ ‘living,’ ‘alive’ are terms repeated throughout the text some 280 times, just as many times as the word ‘young,’ which is the key to the exhortation.”

Quite true, but maybe that near obsession – a half dozen times per page by my count – also reflects a certain limitation. Because it’s also true that you can read through this lengthy text and never see the words “heaven” (except in one quotation), “death,” “afterlife,” “eternity” (except as God willing us from all eternity, not as a future state), etc.

This surprised me so much that I actually did word searches, thinking maybe I’d overlooked something in a quick first reading. But no. The whole question of what happens when we die is absent – as well as whether “outreach” to young people is merely a way to give them a richer human experience – a sociological and psychological goal – or matters eternally in some transcendent sense.

And that means that other than a ramped up sense of forgiveness and Christ’s accompaniment of all his children, there’s a lot here that the best of the secular world could already offer young people. And does, along with indulgences for fornication, homosexuality, and abortion.

You can argue over the many and various ways the Exhortation tries to remove obstacles to reaching the large swaths of young people now distant and profoundly uninterested in religion, especially Catholicism. But the reluctance to touch on some of the most consequential matters of the Faith may be one of the very things that has failed to attract young people desperately searching for deeper answers.

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.