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I spent Friday night and much of Saturday at the “Lost?” conference at Fordham University, a conference aimed at understanding better the relationship between the Catholic Church and 20-somethings. I served as moderator of a session on the church and popular culture. Here are a few thoughts in the wake of the conference, moving from appreciation to criticism to hope.

*The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture seemed to do an extraordinary job of organizing and managing a conference that had a surprisingly large attendance and a very full slate of presenters for a day-and-a-half conference. Facilitating a smooth-running conference is a refined art of high coordination, and often a thankless one, but these two Centers did it with aplomb.

*The fact that this conference was ‘sold out’ not only in the main auditorium but also in the overflow space probably says something important about the interest in this generation among pastoral workers, relatives, teachers, and even a clutch of 20-somethings themselves. Does it indicate an awareness of the degree of the “crisis” in the relationship between institutional Catholicism and this cohort?

*Robert Putnam of Harvard was the first at the conference to make a rather direct comment about the ethnic-racial character of the questions driving the conference: the deepest concern, he said, about Catholic affiliation and participation has to do with Anglo (“white”) Catholics, not so much Latino/a Catholics. That question, of the ethnic-racial contours of who is “lost” and who is not lost among young adults (or among church leaders, for that matter), seemed to hang unresolved and underaddressed. I hope the generational questions, that have now driven the Catholic conversation for the last decade or two, will now be supplemented and in many cases replaced by questions of multiple diversities in Catholicism, as well as of white privilege in the management of the church and the structuring of the ecclesial conversations.

*The most frequent recommendation for the Catholic Church was to pay greater attention to young adults. At this conference, one could hear that the institutional church “needs to listen,” that church leaders and pastoral workers “need to meet people where they are,” and that what is essential is that 20-somethings “be really heard.” I myself have used these phrases since I started writing about the so-called “Generation X” nearly fifteen years ago.

But after so many years of rather intensively following the conversation about Catholicism and young adults, these exhortations are, I am convinced, of quite limited value. These same recommendations were proffered ten to fifteen years ago during the “Generation X” conversations, and were said before that in the 1970s with respect to young Baby Boomers when Catholicism was flush with Vatican II.

Why do I register this note of deep skepticism? Because deep listening is predicated on a willingness to be changed by

the encounter, to have one’s conceptions, even basic conceptions, revised by the other (as well as a trust that the other brings this same fundamental openness). This openness, as much literature on interreligious dialogue shows, is not a weakness or a bracketing of real difference, but rather the limit-test for whether the truth of, in, and through the other can be acknowledged, and thus whether real hearing can happen. Pastoral workers and church leaders cannot advocate “meeting people where they are” if it is only to try to convince people about what “we” think we already know about God, sex, faith, justice, or whatever Catholic material we deem of urgency. “Meeting people where they are” thus always borders on patronizing: people can’t “get” to where “we” are, so “we” must “go out” and meet “them.”

I do not doubt the sincerity of any Catholic church worker who wants to listen more closely. Indeed, in many Catholic locales, genuine listening takes places because on the ground things are able to change, however modestly, if only in that location, in ways that are “good news” for those people. Maybe that is the best for which one can hope, that Catholic ministry in context becomes what people need for life, healing, and courage. But in doing so, perhaps more than ever, the threat to one’s ministry, employment or place in the Catholic Church is likely to be put in play.

I simply do not think that “listening” is going to give us what we think it will. Of course many understand this and make their own peace or not with it. But I think it is important to speak as clearly as possible about it.

Something of this troubling dynamic was repeated in the very way the “Lost?” conference was structured: most of the dialogue was about twenty-somethings, instead of with twenty-somethings. Very few 20-somethings themselves were presenters (as distinct from respondents or excerpted in video clips). Yet each panel ended up asking for “dialogue” with twenty-somethings. We have seen this dynamic before!

How could a move to real listening be more broadly credible? The Catholic Church has to have the courage to say, and to prioritize in its doctrinal, catechetical, pastoral, and theological life, that it is not done knowing God, nor is it done knowing sexuality or salvation, among many other matters, in the light of God. Perhaps the most appropriate next official document would regard what the Catholic Church is able to admit that it does not understand.

*

We are reminded today in the New York Times, in a story about NASA’s exploration of potential life in outer, outer space, of our tiny, even less-than-tiny, place in the universe, a place our outsize anxieties for managing religious identities has yet to catch up to. We read that that “Gliese 581, one of the nearest planetary systems” is 120 trillion miles away from us. It will take 300,000 years for current satellites to reach it. The search for life and a more realistic comprehension of our place in the universe has barely begun. The Catholic Church is in danger of being caught up in trying to manage identities that are too small for too many. The good news is that, as most readers of this blog must know, Catholicism on the ground can and does find ways to slough off this smallness, and many Catholic educators and pastoral leaders understand themselves to be doing precisely that.

The larger church itself cannot change in ways that will speak to all Catholics today, nor in ways that will allow the majority of Catholics to become anything like the official definitions of Catholicism would prescribe. Insofar as that is true, it cannot really “listen,” but no doubt we will continue to hear more of trying to “meet people where they are.”

I would argue that expectations must be changed for what can happen: from waiting for church structures to change, to supporting people in making decisions for their own integrity with, within, against, and without Catholic resources.

In such work, I am inspired by David Tracy’s charge, in Plurality and Ambiguity, that “theologians attempt to envision some believable hope by testing critically all religious claims to ultimate hope.”

Tom Beaudoin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

*

UPDATE 31 January 2011 22:19 PM EST:

Some twenty-something lay ecclesial ministers (that’s professional pastoral workers for those who do not know the special language) who went to the conference the conference sent me the link to this video. Good work — and maybe there will be further responses from twenty-somethings…

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