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Summer Books

To keep young adults, church can’t be ‘lazy monopoly

By Dean R. Hoge, William D. Dinges, Mary Johnson, Juan L. Gonzales, Jr.
University of Notre Dame Press, 274 pages, $40


What happens when a generation of Catholics grows up thoroughly washed in American pluralism and individualism, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the most revolutionary church council in 500 years?

According to Young Adult Catholics, what happens is that we are neither angry with the church nor satisfied with many official teachings. We affirm many different religions as true, while preferring Catholicism. We say that weekly Mass attendance is not important, yet also want more parish adult education. We think there is something unique about Catholicism but cannot say what it is.

The church today is confronted by its first post-Vatican II young adult generation, aged early 20s to late 30s. In reporting the results of their four-year study, fueled by over 800 interviews, the four authors argue that young adults both react against and deepen the changes initiated by the Baby Boomers in the ways Catholic identity is lived. This thoughtful and timely work will be a handbook for those hungry for data on Catholic young adult life. All who minister to or theologize about this generation should read it carefully. (Full disclosure: Young Adult Catholics offers a negative interpretation of this reviewer’s work that I will not respond to here.)

Dean Hoge, William Dinges, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Mary Johnson and Juan Gonzales stock over 270 pages with a concisely rendered sociological snapshot, giving particular attention to how young adults define spirituality, Catholic identity, and what we retain from our religious education. Their book concludes with an agenda for understanding and ministering to young adults today that the church cannot afford to ignore.

Much of what is commonly supposed about young Catholics is confirmed by the authors’ research. Most in their sample define themselves as “spiritual,” are in favor of expanded ministry roles for women and all laity, and carry a sense of rue about what we did not learn during childhood and adolescent religious education. Young adults prize the sacraments and social justice as central to Catholic identity, and even though we know a Catholic relation to Mary is distinctive, the authors argue that she is not as integral to young adult spirituality as previously. Young Catholics are eager to know more about Catholic identity, to be consulted in matters of morality, and to appropriate our faith on our own individual terms.

A few conventional notions about young Catholics are questioned by this book. Despite the common “seeker” appellation, their sample tended not to look outside Christianity for their spirituality. The authors found young Catholics assembling a spirituality from within Catholicism, taking different elements of the tradition and discarding what was not useful for making sense of their lives. And contrary to some assumptions, young adults are not leaving the church in large numbers, even as they disagree with certain teachings, and most are not attending Mass regularly.

Some readers will be surprised by a few of the findings. Young Catholics across the ideological spectrum support lay empowerment and social justice -- not just young “liberals.” Interestingly, similar percentages of Catholics -- from the most to least active -- endorse what the authors call religious relativism. And if active Catholic practice does not lead young adults to shed relativism, neither, according to their data, does Catholic schooling tend to produce active Catholics. Attending Catholic elementary or high school does not correlate strongly with later parish involvement or church attendance. And in a church that offers plural identity options, one avenue was barred for this generation: Only about 15 percent were ever encouraged to become a sister, brother or priest.

One of the most unique contributions of this book is its focus on Latinos, who constitute at least a third of U.S. Catholics. The authors found many similarities in conviction between young Latinos and other young adults. However, personal devotional life is still much stronger among young Latinos. This group is more likely to endorse an active church role regarding economic and environmental justice, although they are less informed than non-Latinos about Catholic institutional traditions. And yet, despite the more “churchy” sample that the authors surveyed, Latinos were not dramatically more “traditional” than other young Catholics. They are “a bit less ecumenical, a bit less relativistic and a bit less ready for empowerment of laity.” The interesting data on young Latinos show that all young adult ministries need to be thoroughly inculturated while still attending to common convictions among young adults across ethnicity, race and culture.

It is important to keep the limitations of this book in view. The authors admit that their study is limited to young adults confirmed in adolescence. This leaves out 30-40 percent of non-Latinos and 60-70 percent of Latinos -- and even those percentages are informed guesses. By their own admission, then, this study is only claiming to represent approximately one half of all young Catholics, and is biased in favor of those who had a more active Catholic upbringing. Moreover, they admit that their Latino sample is better educated and less transient than typical, and sometimes given to offer answers that appear deferential toward the institutional church.

All sociological methods import theological assumptions, especially in the sociology of religion, and there are some problematic presuppositions in this book. Space affords me only one example: the data on illiteracy about Vatican II, about which most young Catholics know little or nothing. While this illiteracy is troubling, it must be pointed out that the authors only seek to measure verbal or conceptual literacy about the council -- that is, what people can say or construe in a conceptually clear way to interviewers.

Yet there are other kinds of literacy. Young Catholics today manifest a performative literacy of the council every time they act so as to endorse the church as the people of God, the value of religious liberty, social justice or ecumenism. This performative literacy does not need to have been inspired exclusively from the Catholic church to count as “Catholic.” After all, the church’s teachings themselves on each of these issues were formulated in dialogue with surrounding cultures. This legitimate theological line of inquiry is left out of their sociological approach.

Despite these hesitations, and an antiseptic writing style, this book is a very important contribution, and the church is in debt to the productive toil of these four researchers. They make the new situation clear: “Catholicism’s institutional vitality, public witness and capacity to retain its young are in jeopardy.” Within American culture today, “the church cannot function as a lazy monopoly … simply assuming that the next generation of Catholics will remain Catholic in the old way or automatically return to the church … or that they can be reached in the same way previous generations were reached.”

Young Adult Catholics forces the question: Is the much-heralded “new evangelization” simply a good idea, or is it instead an imperative to be practiced more intentionally before this generation reaches old age? Do we really want to empower young adults to claim their church?

Tom Beaudoin is the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001