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Young and faithful to recent orthodoxy

by Colleen Carroll
Loyola Press, 320 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by THOMAS P. RAUSCH

Colleen Carroll, an award-winning journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch now doing a doctorate in philosophy at St. Louis University, has written a book with the provocative title, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. In it she argues that a growing number of young Americans, both Catholic and Protestant (with a parallel movement among young Jews), are forsaking the liberalism and religious relativism of their parents’ generation and turning to a more traditional Christianity, which she calls simply “orthodoxy.”

Supported by a Phillips Journalism Fellowship, Carroll spent a year interviewing these young adults, mostly bright, articulate students or young professionals, in colleges, campus ministries, and conference centers across the country. Her book recounts their stories.

These are young people who want answers. They are basing their identity on the traditional beliefs of their faith communities, adhering to the “traditional morality and religious devotions” of those communities. Rejecting the self-description of many of their peers as “spiritual but not religious,” they are searching for churches that combine deep faith with genuine community and welcome guidance from traditional sources of authority, including Pope John Paul II, whom they admire for his uncompromising teaching.

Many are converts, or have had the experience of rediscovering their faith as young adults, or are “reverts” returning to Catholicism as “evangelical Catholics” after becoming involved in other churches. They see themselves as taking a stand against the relativism of the dominant secular culture, and are willing to make the sacrifices demanded by their faith commitments.

With one out of four the children of divorced parents, Carroll suggests that they are part of a new sexual revolution that prizes chastity. They reject sex before marriage and abortion and oppose homosexual activity while insisting that homosexuals have the right to be treated as equals.

While Carroll’s book has been welcomed in evangelical circles and praised by Catholic church authorities, it has generally not been well received by progressive Catholics. I do have some questions about how representative of young Catholics her book is. National studies by sociologists do not seem to support her argument.

Sociologist William D’Antonio of The Cath-olic University of America in Washington, for example, indicates that young Catholics re-main committed to the church’s sacramental system and to its concern for social justice, though most look to their own conscience in the area of sexuality rather than to the magisterium. Carroll’s subjects are mostly an elite -- university students and well-educated young professionals. What she is de-scribing is a subgroup.

Nevertheless, commentators like Sr. Katarina Schuth, Fr. Robert Schreiter, William Port-ier, and Jesuit Fr. John Kavanaugh have noted a different attitude among many young Catholics today, particularly among those preparing for leadership roles or taking a more active role in the church’s life. Other theologians have confirmed to me that their graduate students are familiar with “conservative” authors, Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn, Mark Shea and Patrick Madrid, whose works their professors wouldn’t dream of reading.

My main difficulty with Carroll’s book is the narrow way in which she construes orthodoxy. While she cites G.K. Chesterton’s equation of orthodoxy with the Apostles’ Creed “and the general historic conduct of those who heed such a creed” early in her book, she herself tends to identify orthodoxy with the most conservative expressions of contemporary Catholicism, with religious communities such as the Legionaries of Christ, Regnum Christi and Opus Dei, with traditional expressions of piety such as kneeling at the consecration, eucharistic adoration and Latin Masses, and with homeschooling.

She assumes that neoconservative Cath-olic institutions like the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Thomas Aquinas College in California are “explicitly orthodox,” while other Catholic colleges and universities are not. While many Catholic students today are more traditional, including in their devotional interests, Kavanaugh wisely remarks that this may be “due to the fact that the ‘new faithful’ have found a more welcoming embrace from the right arm of the church than from the left.”

Carroll’s narrow construal of orthodoxy is regrettable, as it risks freezing the tradition in a moment of time, namely the recent past, rather than recognizing that the great tradition is a living tradition that often reshapes its practice, theological language and life as it continues to reflect on the mystery from which it lives. Though she warns in her final chapter about the danger of these young adults being co-opted by conservative factions, her identification of orthodoxy with a narrow traditionalism will probably lead many readers to dismiss the importance of what she has noted, that a new generation is coming into positions of leadership with an agenda quite different from the reconstructionist, liberal agenda of the Vatican II generation.

There are many young Catholics today who share a concern for the ecclesial identity, moral clarity, evangelization and transformation of culture that Carroll describes, but who also recognize the need for the renewal of ecclesial structures and for the exercise of authority in a more inclusive way.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas P. Rausch is T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003