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Church in Crisis

Young Catholics question, but faith unshaken by crisis


As the punditry, protests and court proceedings continue, young adult Catholics respond in their own way to the sex abuse scandals that have shaken the church. Though Mass attendance and confidence in their pastors haven’t wavered, they are interested in reexamining issues related to celibacy and the ordination of women and married men.

If an admittedly unscientific sampling is any indication, twentysomethings, while angered and frustrated by the secrecy of the Catholic hierarchy, look to the future of the church with great hope and optimism.

Despite a recent New York Post article that reported a dip in Mass attendance among younger Catholics, conversations with practicing young adult Catholics indicates otherwise. “It’s business as usual around here,” said Marty Rhein, director of Youth Ministry, Young Adults and Singles at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Ann Arbor, Mich. “On Easter Sunday we had more people than we’ve ever had here on Easter. People are still believing, still coming. And our young adult group continues to be one of the most active in the area.”

Rhein said his biggest file of new parishioners is young adults. “The file is just bulging,” he said. “Young adults are adult enough to know that while the church isn’t perfect, the Eucharist is an incredible gift. The church doesn’t end with this.”

Catholics in other cities seem to react similarly. “No, it is not harder to attend Mass after hearing such news,” said Joanna Fava, a 22-year-old living in New York City. “I do not believe that the majority of priests are involved in this. I believe that the Catholic church is involved in so much good work and charity around the world, and I focus my attention and energy on that.”

“I have great faith in the pastors at my parish,” said Jennifer Kowieski, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher in Chicago.

Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America, and one of the authors of the book Young Adult Catholics, points out that “the scandals damage the credibility of the hierarchy more than the local priests. The higher-ups are at fault more than the parish priests, especially the local parish priests people know and love.” Thus young adults’ confidence in their spiritual leaders seems not to have wavered, and their confidence in the church’s mission hasn’t wavered either.

“The whole scandal has really pointed out to me how much I believe in the church, rather than the shortcomings of the people who run the church. People run the church. People make mistakes. But when it comes right down to it, it’s all about celebrating the Eucharist. People’s trangressions don’t change transubstantiation,” said Michael Hickey, a 28-year-old Los Angeles attorney.

Shelly Dillenburger, a 27-year-old Cincinnati high school teacher, quotes a friend: “We have to remember that the church has educated, helped and given much more than it has hurt. Our most important mission is to continue to spread the gospel in our faith and actions.”

Young adults describe feeling angry and disappointed when hearing of sex abuse scandals. Yet, as they look to the future of a church that will eventually be led by their generation, twentysomethings look forward with hope, but only if certain changes are to be made and new leadership developments considered. “I do not see the church making it through this period unchanged,” said Gabriel Bosslet, a third-year medical student at Ohio State University. “I think that women or married priests will be the change that takes place.”

For Fava, the recent news gives rise to such questions: “Should the church begin to accept the fact that sexuality and desire are a natural part of human nature and that priests are not exempt from this natural tendency? Should the church begin to allow the marriage of priests and the acceptance of women as priests?”

Sheila Provencher, an employee of the University of Notre Dame, stresses the importance of future collaboration between clergy and laity. “The worst thing that can happen is if, in our eagerness to separate ourselves from the hierarchy and their mishandling of the situation, we forget that we are church,” she said. “We are all part of the same community, and so we all share in the responsibility to work for healing.”

Provencher is concerned that the current scandals will provide an opportunity to place the blame on homosexual priests. “I have personally encountered countless numbers of gay priests and seminarians who are both faithful to their vows and committed to living the gospel. They are in fact often particularly gifted in their ministry. Because they have experienced suffering through their orientation that bears such stigma in our church, they often posses a special degree of pastoral sensitivity.”

Provencher’s concern for homosexual clergy mirrors that of many in her generation, a generation that supports expanded roles for those who are often given secondary roles by the church. “Many young Catholics love gays and lesbians more than official church teaching does, and most young Catholics are in favor of expanded roles for women in the church,” said Tom Beaudoin, adjunct professor of theology at Boston College and author of the book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.

This prevailing openness to change and optimism in the face of scandal may be due to the fact that twentysomethings never personally lived through the “Father knows best” era of the church, primarily the 1950s, when clergy were automatically granted an enormous amount of status and respect simply by virtue of their profession. “This is not a generation that has overly high expectations for the institutional church that suddenly have been crashingly shattered,” said Beaudoin. “Many young adults are sickened and saddened by this scandal, but they already knew that the spiritual family they love so dearly is dysfunctional.”

Hoge of The Catholic University of America pointed out that many young adults do not identify strongly with the institutional arm of the church. “[They] have a tendency to see some church rules and, by inference, some church institutional structures, as optional and not God-given. So the scandals would damage the credibility of the institutional church more than the faith.”

As far as the institutional church is concerned, young adults have been described as granting respect and authority not universally, but on a case-by-case basis. Such an approach might explain why they haven’t been leaving their faith communities. They’ve shopped around for parishes, and have found places of worship that are led by people they deem to be authentic and faith-filled. As a result, though they may be angered by the national headlines, their day-to-day participation in the church’s life has not changed. Eric Styles, a recent University of Cincinnati graduate who became Catholic two years ago, commented, “I joined this spiritual community very aware of its great gifts to the human experience and its pathological limitations.”

The recent sex abuse scandals mark the first major controversy in the church experienced by Generation X Catholics. As a result, some may continue to reevaluate their opinions and reactions. Beaudoin said, “Generationally, this is our first major church tumult, which means that we are writing the script of our response as we go along.”

Renée M. LaReau is a pastoral associate at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Kettering, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002