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Teens offer diverse new agendas

NCR Staff
Kansas City, Mo.

One week before 14,000 Catholic teens met here, another Catholic group -- Call to Action -- drew 3,500 participants to its annual conference in Detroit.

It would be hard to imagine two Catholic gatherings with more disparate programs. While Call to Action’s 16,000 members embody post-Vatican II hopes for progressive change in areas such as women’s ordination, priestly celibacy and the role of dissent, those issues were conspicuously absent from the agenda for the National Catholic Youth Conference. Instead, the focus in Kansas City was on catechesis, evangelization and a celebration of Catholic identity.

In part, of course, this difference can be accounted for by sponsorship -- the National Catholic Youth Conference is largely funded by parishes and dioceses, whilethe reform-oriented Call to Action is independently supported. Then, too, the purpose of the NCYC is not to promote reform but to engage youth more fully in the life of the church.

Yet, some would argue that the disjunction between the two events reflects a more fundamental shift in Catholic attitudes. These observers believe that the issues that galvanized the Vatican II-era generation are of little interest to younger Catholics. As the living memory of Vatican II fades, this school of thought suggests, so too does ardor for the council’s reform agenda.

At first blush, the teens at the youth conference would seem to confirm this hypothesis. Many spoke of the appeal of a church that holds fast in a changing world, a church that articulates an uncompromising moral tradition. Many young people seemed lukewarm to the idea of sweeping change.

Yet when one scratches the surface -- moving from the general idea of change to specific concerns -- a tremendous diversity of opinion emerges. Many of the Catholic teens gathered in Kansas City spoke favorably, for example, of softening church strictures on divorce or allowing priests to marry. The image of today’s Catholic youth as largely conservative is therefore misleading, at least taking those assembled for the conference as an indication. While young Catholics value the stability of Catholic tradition, they often side with reformers on some of the most contentious issues.

And, in perhaps the clearest sign that the post-conciliar dream is not dead in the next generation, virtually every teenager who was asked for an opinion said that dissent should not be squelched in the church and that Catholics who find themselves estranged from church teaching should still be welcomed as part of the community of faith. Whatever else today’s Catholic adolescent may value, tolerance appears to be near the top of the list.

To adults who don’t work with youth, it’s often surprising how much importance they attach to tradition. And Catholic teens at the conference said repeatedly that the solidity of Catholic tradition does hold considerable appeal for them.

“Lots of my non-Catholic friends ask, ‘how can you go through all of this?’ You know, the rituals, all the moral teachings and everything else,” said Angela Shatto, 17, of Kansas City, Mo. “My answer is that it’s a tradition. It offers a firm base for young people today.”

Shirley Fievet, 18, of Birmingham, Ala., said much the same thing. “[Church teachings] should stay the same. It’s tradition. What I believe in, I know is right, so I don’t think it should change,” she said.

“I like everything that it [the Catholic church] stands for,” said D. O’Hara of Kansas City, Mo. “I was brought up as a Catholic, and I like what it says about family values. I also respect its teaching on social values. It has defined values and beliefs that don’t change. For me, that’s the coolest thing. We’re standing up for what we believe in. That’s what going to Mass every week confirms,” he said.

This desire for something reliable led many young people to be wary of the potential impact of change in church traditions. “I guess I would see the church, if they were to break down and change the rules ... I would see it as the church giving in to society,” O’Hara said. “That’s one of the cool things about it, when society is running wild with all the sexual promiscuity and all that stuff, the church stands strong on the things they believe.”

“I just agree with the way things are,” said Eric O’Neal, 17, from Birmingham, Ala. “The way I’ve been brought up, and the way I see things, I think it’s great the way it is. Change would probably just make [the church] more chaotic.”

“The fact that the church is seen as unchanging and solid attracts young people who are looking for something they can count on,” Shatto said. “I don’t know how major changes would affect that. ... I sort of think it would turn young people off.”

Time of self-discovery

Given this, it’s easy to see how adults could conclude that young Catholics aren’t interested in the kinds of change sought by reformers -- and, indeed, some were prepared to draw just that conclusion. “I think young people [today] are often more traditional in outlook, or conservative if you want to call it that,” said Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Ala. “I think they’re less interested in making changes than in discovering our core Catholic traditions. To some extent, I suppose, they’re reacting to the excesses of what went before.”

Others agreed that young Catholics aren’t terribly interested in reform issues, but saw it more as a matter of personal development than as a conservative trend. “I don’t think they would consider it unimportant, but it is not where they’re at right now. They’re still at a time in their life of self-discovery,” said Bishop Stanley Schlarman of Dodge City, Kan.

“I don’t think some of those topics are nearly as important to young people as they are to adults, and I think we as adults have to be very, very careful of not imposing our own political agendas on young people,” said Bishop Frank Tobin of Youngstown, Ohio. Tobin -- who said he wouldn’t necessarily agree that young people are more conservative than older generations of Catholics -- nevertheless said that their focus is not on adult concerns.

“These young people are dealing with some very fundamental questions about belief in Jesus Christ, what it means to have moral values, what it means to be part of the Catholic church,” Tobin said.

With the excluded

But not every adult in Kansas City agreed that young Catholics -- whether as a matter of ideology or maturity -- aren’t interested in reform. Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., was one of the few to explicitly address such issues in a public setting at the conference, saying in a reflection to the 300 teens gathered for the bishops/youth forum that the “richest moments” of his life had come when he chose “to stand with those who were hurting or who felt excluded or apart.” Clark enumerated women, gay and lesbian Catholics, and those struggling with the role of inquiry in the church as examples of such “excluded” groups.

In an interview after his talk, Clark said he felt these issues are very much on the minds of younger Catholics. “My sense is that young people care deeply about such matters, and struggle with them every bit as much as adults,” he said. “And I think you will find a tremendous diversity of opinion among young people on these issues, as you would among adults.”

Clark’s prediction appeared to hold up in conversations with conference participants, who seemed to represent most of the points on the Catholic ideological compass. It was a rare Catholic teen who expressed disinterest in the hot-button reform issues, or who wasn’t ready to express an opinion on them.

Sara Walters, 17, of Norwich, Conn., argued for change in Catholic teaching about divorce: “The church really makes people who are divorced feel like they’re not a part of the church anymore. They make it seem so sinful. You feel like you can’t get out of a bad relationship because God won’t love you anymore. I don’t think it’s right and it’s not something the church should be teaching,” she said.

Other teens wanted greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. “I think that the church shouldn’t look down on people’s sexual preferences,” said Ely Guess, 17, of Birmingham, Ala.

“I don’t see a problem with priests marrying, personally,” said Shatto, ticking off another area where she would like to see the church make a change. “I don’t see why having a family and family life would hurt. ... I think it would make the church stronger. I have friends that are Baptists or just Christians, and their pastors or ministers are allowed to marry, and a lot of times it adds to it. They set a good example with their family life.”

From the above, one might conclude that today’s Catholic teen is generally progressive-minded, a conclusion some delegates were prepared to make. “I think kids have more of a liberal view on things,” said Matt Bradley, 18, of Kansas City, Mo. “They’re a little more towards change. A lot of kids might like women priests or allowing priests to marry.”

Bradley’s friend Ryan Dijusto, 17, also from Kansas City, Mo., agreed. “I think young people are more liberal,” he said. “They’re open to new ideas. I think we are ready for a change from what we’ve had in the past.”

Just when you’re ready to put young Catholics solidly in the reform column, however, another Kansas City teen -- Andy Pace, 14, standing right next to Bradley and Dijusto as they spoke -- said, “I don’t agree with that at all. I think most kids like things the way they are.”

O’Hara said he clearly opposed change in at least one area: women’s ordination. “I personally think men should be priests,” he said. “Jesus summoned men to follow him. If they were to change, it would be different. It just wouldn’t be the same church. The history of the church would be altered.”

And Fievet agreed. On the subject of female priests, she said flatly, “We’ve got nuns, that’s enough.”

The same range of views could be heard in the workshops, forums and discussions. In the bishops/youth forum, for example, participants were asked to describe a church that “actively involves youth.” While some said such a church would make “everyone welcome” and be “nonjudgmental,” others said a church that involves youth would proclaim the “full truth of Catholicism” and even encourage “the gift of tongues.”

Despite disagreement on specific issues, most participants agreed that, whatever adults might think, young Catholics are interested in debates over change in the church. “It’s about us, really,” said Jason Dollard of Norwich, Conn. “Those issues are going to affect us more than they’re going to affect the adults of the church, so we really want to have an opinion about how we want the church to be when we’re in charge of it.”


Moreover, participants seemed most united on the subject of what to do about disagreement. The near-unanimous answer seemed to be to tolerate it -- and don’t exclude people because of it.

“[Catholics who disagree with church teaching] shouldn’t be looked down upon,” said Kelly Annino, 17, of Norwich, Conn. “I mean, you believe in God. ... Why can’t you just come praise God with us?” she said.

Miranda Daugherty, 17, of Youngstown, Ohio, echoed that view. “I think it’s their [dissenters’] choice,” she said. “They can believe what they want to believe as long as they think it’s right. We shouldn’t look down on other people, and we should still consider them part of the church.”

Candace Hartz, 17, from Chattanooga, Tenn., spoke for many participants when she drew a distinction between essentials and areas of acceptable disagreement. “As long as you believe the important stuff ... [disagreement] doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” she said. “As long as you believe in God in your heart, the little issues don’t matter.”

So, where should this line be drawn? O’Hara pointed to the issue he sees as a sine qua non of Catholic identity -- abortion. “One thing that frustrates me is, for example, a politician saying I’m a Catholic, but I’m pro-choice,” O’Hara said. “That’s a little bit of a stretch, especially when the church is so against abortion. On things like that, I personally think there should not be room [for dissent]. But on smaller things, like the way the church is run, the way the Mass goes, there definitely should be room,” he said.

Dollard agreed, saying “You have to draw the line at things like abortion.”

But even here, some teens disagreed. “If a girl gets raped and has to have an abortion, why shouldn’t she still be welcome into the Catholic church?” asked Annino.

Her friend, Sara Waters, 17, made the point more broadly. “I don’t think there should be a line [on limits of acceptable disagreement],” Waters said. “You never know when God is present with somebody. No matter how strongly they disagree with something, you can’t take God away from them. You can’t draw a line on God and his love for people, and the love people have for him.”

Shatto suggested that rather than looking at church teaching as a set of rules that must be obeyed, Catholics should regard it as a set of ideals to which they can aspire. “I don’t think we should look at it as the church telling us what to do, but as the church setting challenges for us to live our lives better,” she said. The church should make room for those who fall short, she said, or who dissent from the standards. “Just because the church teaches something ... if you truly believe in your heart another way, and you choose to live your life differently, you shouldn’t be condemned for that,” she said.

Finally, Dollard defended dissent in terms that, had they overheard, might have made the prelates clustered nearby a bit nervous. “If you don’t allow for disagreement, there will never be any revolution,” he said. “Then everything just gets stale and nobody wants to come anymore.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997