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Theologian: GenXers make uneasy peace with church


As a theologian, Tom Beaudoin sees it as his responsibility “to do my part to keep the church in a constant state of reform.” His 1998 book, Virtual Faith, has given thousands inside and out of Call to Action a guide to understanding the theology of GenXers through their music videos, fashion and cyberspace. Beaudoin, 31, is a doctoral student at Boston College.

His research indicates that young Catholics are “wary of seeing religion reduced to church squabbles and political backbiting. A lot of them have made an uneasy peace with the intransigence of the church,” he said, noting that while they’re not apathetic about the role of women in the church, race or birth control, they’re also “not extremely involved.”

If CTA expects younger Catholics to revitalize the church, it has to be much more sensitive to their spiritual needs, he said. Unless the spiritual disciplines of the church are experienced as nurturing, as contributing to one’s interior life, they will not be attracted to the reform movement. Many of them have already seen that those who’ve labored to change the church are often “disappointed, cynical, bitter and burned-out,” he said.

If the shift does not happen -- from reform being grasped as a spiritual discipline instead of a reaction of “overt anger” toward the institution -- Beaudoin predicts that the reform movement will fold its tent within a decade. He does not expect GenXers “to swallow the agenda of the boomers whole.” Instead those younger Catholics who remain faithful will put their energies into “local, limited battles, into working more discreetly and changing relationships” rather than into national or global church strategies, he said. “We don’t want to give our careers to spinning our wheels.”

This is not to say that GenXers are not as passionate about church reform as older folks in Call to Action, said Beaudoin, who while not a member of the organization, has observed the group closely. “Until we have truly intergenerational teaching and learning within lay reform groups and among clergy and the hierarchy, the church will continue to have loud and soft debates. The body of Christ will stay fragmented … with differences allowed to fester at low temperatures.”

The future might well see GenXers claiming a church of their own, he said, though he doubts that there exists “a critical mass of the post-Vatican II generation large enough to do the claiming and the inviting.” The bishops and clergy could also do the hard work of wooing back young Catholics by listening to them and being open to their spiritual needs.

But Beaudoin finds “a certain laziness” among church leaders, whose attitude for the most part is: “They’ll come back when they want to raise a family in the church.” The inference is: “We’ll have nothing to do with you until you seek us out.”

“This is a missiology that sucks,” Beaudoin said. It makes the church look like “a sacramental PEZ dispenser. … It’s not evangelization.” Despite declarations from Rome, from the bishops and from diocesan synods, the designated priorities of adult education and adult catechesis are being met with “woeful inadequacy,” he said. With few exceptions, “there is nothing in place for GenXers when they do return.”

The lack of engagement in the church on the part of the majority of GenXers may have as much to do with an emerging global culture as it does with rust in the reform movement or an iron-willed papacy, reckoned Robert Ludwig, author of Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation. Ludwig’s own children as well as many students at DePaul University in Chicago, where he is professor of Catholic studies and director of university ministry, “don’t love the church enough to want to reform it.”

Ludwig has observed a “huge renaming of God” going on worldwide. A new global culture and a new global religion are emerging with the shrinking of the world, he said. Many GenXers are more attracted to Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Kung’s Global Ethics movement and to groups like the World Parliament of Religions than to institutional churches or their reform wings, he noted.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000