The other day an older Jesuit, who has been working at one of our high schools for decades, asked me, “why would an 18-year old boy want to be a Catholic?” “Who are his role models?”
It was, admittedly, not so easy to come up with an answer. You could answer by pointing to Mother Teresa, or John Paul II, perhaps. But you immediately run into certain problems, even with these figures. In America, at least, we face something of a crisis. Our Catholic heroes are not idolized, instead we have allowed them to become “ideologicalized.”
Take John Paul II. “Conservative” Catholics have claimed him, and “liberal” Catholics have given in. Forget that along with his traditional ecclesiology, he also insisted upon the preferential option for the poor. Forget that in addition to his strong stance against abortion and euthanasia, he also closed the door on most, if not all, Catholic justification of the death penalty, was a passionate promoter of non-violence and consistently spoke out against war throughout his pontificate. Conservatives have claimed the parts of him which fit their agenda, and liberals have allowed it by doing such things as calling more traditional young priests whom they disapprove of as “JPII priests,” or the JPII generation.”
This conversation brought home to me what I knew intuitively, but hadn’t realized so starkly up until this point. We have given up on “Catholic” heroes, and have made heroes of Catholics who fit into nice, little, ideological boxes. Gone are the days when a Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day or Fulton Sheen could be looked up to by most Catholics. Today, conservative Catholics would object to Dorothy Day for being a pacifist, and accuse her (as Glen Beck did just recently) of being a Communist (true, some did back then, too). Merton would be looked on with suspicion because of his interest in Eastern religion. And Fulton Sheen would make liberals uncomfortable because of his extreme concern with Communism perhaps, but even more so because he was a member of the hierarchy.
Can one be a Catholic hero in America today without being claimed by one of these ideological camps? Or maligned by one? It seems like any would be Catholic hero has to be a conservative hero or a liberal hero, neither of whom turns out in the end—at least according to my understanding of what it means to be Catholic—to be a very Catholic hero. The greatest Catholic heroes, the Saints, have never been those that could be easily fit into these little boxes. They are saints precisely because of their expansiveness and broad appeal. Some of them, indeed, were persecuted—even killed—by the Church. And the Church in her wisdom recognized her mistake by proclaiming their sanctity. This in itself might give us pause before we are so quick to condemn those we deem insufficiently Catholic.
And what are the consequences for young people today? They see a version of Church that speaks of intolerance and exclusion, one in which one could not possibly be a hero without holding all the correct opinions and participating in the right youth group, club or political party. This is a church which becomes more and more distant from their experience as members of a society which while certainly imperfect, at least makes an effort at being tolerant of difference, and recognizing the worth of all. I was once naïve enough (and I still hope that younger people today might fight to hold on to such naivete) to believe that this ideal, however unrealized, was mirrored in the pro-life movement of the Church. After all, aren’t we as Catholics devoted to affirming the dignity and sacredness of all human life? I thought so when, as a youth, I became involved in pro-life activities. But quickly I realized that many of those whom I prayed or protested with against abortion, the death penalty, war, etc. were really only dedicated to the dignity and sacredness of some human life. And they frequently showed little regard for the dignity of those who didn’t agree with their particular form of extremism (even some who were on “their side”). There were no heroes for me there. Heck, I didn’t even want to be around most of them, except for the minority which were the most humble and sincere, and who persevered despite being embarrassed by many of the more vocal members of the group.
This was my experience as a young adult, and I fear it’s only gotten worse. When I ask my students if as Catholics they feel a strong pull, as I did at their age, to become associated with one camp or another, they say the tendency among them and their Catholic peers is to simply become apathetic about the Church. They may not even have a strong idea of what it means to be Catholic, but still they can see the lie in many of the ways of being Catholic that they are being offered. They are still idealistic enough to believe that being Catholic means loving each other, and too often that is something that many of those being offered as heroes to them don’t seem too concerned about.
As that becomes increasingly the case, that question asked by that older Jesuit seems far less cynical than it seemed on first hearing, and far more urgent.
Maybe the child can lead us? Maybe we need to look to our young people, and how they see the Church, to help bring us back from the brink of being a Church of arguing oldsters, trying to lure an increasingly less interested younger constituency to our little corner of the Catholic world.