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Mike Hayes’ Response to “How Americans Think About the Church”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pryzbyla University Center
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

by Mike Hayes
as prepared

With reference to young adult catholics, people in their 20s and 30s I’d like to address the three questions that Dr. Davidson has asked of the panel.

1) Theologically, how do we view the generational shift from Culture I to Culture II Catholicism?

When people live in chaotic times the tendency is often to look to religion for meaning. Sharon Parks talks about this in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams when she describes her students and how their desire for meaning making often dominates their attention. Does this world make sense or not? We don’t have far to look to see that this indeed is the millennial struggle. The rise in the popularity of thought surrounding whether or not the world holds any meaning embedded in our categorical experience, especially from those in the world of science who view the world as chaotic betrays their longing and often nihilism trumps religious tradition. Millennials live in culture of choice and thereby the first choice is no longer between Catholicism and let’s say Buddhism or any other religion–but rather one between chaos and cosmos–are we a random bunch of accidents or are we embued with meaning as children of God? Indeed that’s the first order of business.

The second piece of the agenda is that we live in a culture of choice where one religion presents a certain dogmatic choice and the rest of the smorgasbord present both similar and different challeneges to that set of assumptions. Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow in the recent book After the Baby Boomers calls younger people “spiritual tinkerers” –people who take a bit from each religion rather than adhere to one strand of spiritual thought. This is problematic not merely for the Catholic church, but for religion as a whole. Specific religions may be placed to the sidelines in favor of not merely a cafeteria catholicism but rather, a hybrid religion that picks from amongst what is considered the best wisdom from amongst the various classes of religious thought. Catholicism is now on par with Judaism, Buddhism, Pentacostalism and even Zoastrianism and Fundementalist Islam. While Dr. Davidson notes that 1 in 5 millennials adhere to a Culture I Cathoicism that is still an astounding 20%…a significant number and one that is competitive with the number of millenials that actually attends mass weekly. Could we dare to say that the number of practicing Catholics amongst millennials are in fact more like Culture I catholics than we would like to admit? Probably not, but I know that most of my colleagues see this as a growing trend. And to be honest that’s not a surprise to me. Why? Because young people amidst the chaos of this modern age indeed are looking to find meaning, hoping to find some sense of transcendence in a world that has been marked by Columbine, 9-11, Katrina, Tsunamis and Virginia Tech.

For the non-practicing, the low engagement with catechesis both at the start of the council and the lack of it within the home, has not allowed people to have a strong sense of ownership in their faith and therefore it presents them with the opportunity to fall loosely within another framework of religious thought. So while Catholics may have a deep tradition of contemplative practice in their religion, buddhist meditation often dominates the attention of young people because Catholics never talk about that. A friend of mine talks about a priest who offers many forms of contemplative practice right down the street from a yoga center and often the monastery is mistaken for the yoga center. Their popularity brings dozens of pilgrims looking for moments of peace and the occasional misguided searcher finds not only welcome at that priest’s monastery but also information that tells him that what they do in the monastery is quite similar and older than what is being done down the road.

But we see this all over: Quakers are more known for their peaceful stances than what is found in Catholic Social Teaching. You can find other forms of Prayer or worry beads stocked in the shelves of even secular bookstores in lieu of the rosary. Protestants know their bible better than Catholics do and even when we look at the abortion question…we only get the negative publicity even when members of another religion kill an abortion doctor.

Secondly, I think there is a theological way of explaining what often gets lost amongst these generations by looking at their needs for spiritual experience within the culture that they live in.

For pre-Vatican Catholics living through the depression and a time of war in which chaos really reigned supreme, there was more of a desire to connect with a transcendent God in a vertical way. People prayed privately, perhaps even fearfully to a God who was beyond sense experience who perhaps could help make sense of the chaos. This is once again true in our culture filled with terror war and uncertainty.

For Vatican II and Post Vatican II Catholics the more horizontal relationship with God dominates. Institutions often challenge and disappoint us so we have a greater need for indiduals to shore up our belief in humanity as reflective of God’s love. The longing for community and friendship often dominates the need for religious truth in this group.

2) In what specific ways are the trends and generational differences positive, and

what more can be done to foster these outcomes?

This is a great question posed here by Dr Davidson.

Young people are indeed looking for a religion with some history to it–something that has stood the test of time and has a good track record of religious meaning associated with it. In that instance the catholic church has a distinct advantage and when the church teaching is proclaimed to young people in a way they can understand in forums like these and when technology allows for easy access to that information, Catholicism has quite a bit for young people to explore–much more than the others.

And my first thought is that we really need to return to catechesis in some way. That there is a need to proclaim what it is that we really believe but to do this in a way that doesn’t feel like “class.” For priests, homilies are teaching moments to challenge your congregation but at the same time they can’t be diatribes against the very culture that people must live in. Young parents often don’t want to baptize their children (or they do so begrudgingly because grandma will break their arm if they don’t) because they don’t know what the church teaches and from what they can gather from the media they don’t much want to be part of a religion that is best known for child sex abuse, a loss of membership, a bad experience of catholic schools by many and the growing concern that abortion is the only issue that seems to matter to us–even when a President who disagrees promises to meet us half way.

The second positive, is that when Culture II Catholics grow dissatisfied with the church, even when some culture II catholics leave the church, many report a growing dissatisfaction with the fact that no other tradition has the eucharist (with the exception of some high anglicans). At a huge megachurch in the Chicagoland area the pastor noted to a Catholic priest “We may bring em in in high numbers, but you keep in.” Younger catholics who are a mix of both culture I and II have caught on to this in large numbers. Eucharistic Adoration has become so preferred as a method of prayer amongst the young that when it is not offered it is a huge disappointment and for some it’s become a religious imperative. Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers at times wonder why this is so popular–but why shouldn’t it be? It is the source and summit of our faith and it also provides an hour or so of peace in a noisy world. It makes perfect sense to me and to millennials. Experience is all that people have and talking about individual experience with others is a good way to get people to understand what point of view they are coming from. i find this to be true when baby boomers wonder why millennials want to do things like eucharistic adoration—or why they like Gregorian chant. Once they realize that this is a way for them to make sense out of their busy lives and that they adhere to this practice as a way to be engaged in our tradition, then their own experiences of these practices melt away.

3) In what specific ways do these trends and inter-generational differences present challenges, and what can be done to solve those problems?

Along the same lines as the last question, I know one campus minister who says that he gets dozens of young adults for adoration on Tuesday but very few for weekday mass and a bit more for Sunday mass. It seems that there’s a bit of bad theology that places the vertical relationship between God and the individual which is held in high regard by Culture I Catholics in preference to the more community aspects of the mass (Held more vibrantly by Culture II). Secondly and more theologically, the most important thing we can do when it comes to the Eucharist is to consume it–to become what we receive and not to simply sit and adore as important as that may be as well and as grand as it might make one feel. So again, while retrieval of ancient rituals might be being appropriated for today’s moderns, they may not have a solid theology behind it, so our job as catechists again comes to the forefront.


4) What do we make of the growing gap between the cultural orientations of
laypeople and the cultural orientations of priests? Should we be concerned about it? If so, why and what should we do about it?

I’d like to address this with an additional question that is never talked about:

Explain the phenomena of Deacons rising despite the number of Culture II men not entering the priesthood. There are more deacons right now in the U.S. than there are priests in religious orders. Might it be that it has less to do with authority and more to do with celibacy and the opportunity to have a family and perhaps a career? I’m not sure that’s accurate but while we see a growing number of culture I priests we also see an even larger number of culture II deacons.

And with the rise of Deacons in the church we also should try to explain the lack of men in lay ministry. I am a rare bird not only because at 39 I am one of the youngest people I know in ministry circles but also I am often the only male at meetings and almost certainly the only married male quite often.

So amongst men perhaps there’s a growing engagement with some kind of clerical culture. I would argue at least from an anecdotal perspective that because the option of the diaconate is offered to men, they don’t feel the need to engage with lay ministry–and yet we all know that there’s a wide diversity educationally amongst deacons which makes it difficult for them to be placed on par with someone who has a master’s degree in divinity or religious education. Still it seems that the people in the pews often accept the deacon but doesn’t yet accept lay ministers except in certain places where they are more of a necessity–but even then they are thought of as “less than” deacon and certainly less than “father.”

Religious women seem to be placed on par with both the male and female lay minister for some reason–most likely the non-option for ordination.

So I think this shift in clerical culture has more to do with that same longing for the need for order amidst chaos more than anything else. Hence, our young clergy has this pre-Vatican II tendency, that often adjusts when they leave seminary and start working alongside baby boomers and Xers but not after much friction. But it tends to make sense. Priests are the normative ministers–so they are always looked on as a trusted source–even from people who don’t necessarily like the clergy or the church. It’s a default setting for most and it’s one of the huge reasons that the scandal was as big as it was. We have high expectations of priests and expect them to perform at higher levels than lay people.

In closing, I would say that the challenge that exists with regards to millennials is huge. We have a significant minority that is clearly engaged with the tenants of the church but also at times are simply hard for those that are seeking to have a conversation with. We have an unchurched majority that wants to understand their faith better but have the challenges of time and the lack of institutional engagement amongst other choices.

The solution needed is visibility. How can we show ourselves to be more engaged with the world that young people are engaged in? And how can we proclaim the wisdom of our tradition while we are that visible? Can we be more visible at things like the G-8 summit? Do people know of our work at trying to close the schools of the americas? How many people see the good work done at pregnancy crisis centers?

What about liturgy? Can we show the beauty of our rituals and talk about what our traditions actually do for us? Can we care for liturgy as much as the Broadway actress cares about each time the curtain goes up? I’m not comparing mass to a show here–but rather the care an actress takes for each line and each second on the stage and the fact that lectors often haven’t read the reading before they reach the pulpit and they certainly haven’t comprehended the story most of the time.

Can we simply let others know that Catholicism is a valid and moreover a relevant choice that has spoken to the hearts and more importantly the minds of generations for centuries and that our truth still speaks volumes today?

I believe we can. But we’ve got to get a move on–we’re already behind by a generation of people–this one.