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Jim Bowman is a former Jesuit from the Chicago Province and a long time religion editor for the Chicago Daily News. He is now the editor of a lively webzine called www.Blithe-Spirit.com . (Our readers can subscribe by going to that site.) Bowman here reviews a new book that troubles us, not because it celebrates the moves of some young Catholics “back to orthodoxy,” but because the kind of orthodoxy they are moving toward verges on an idolatry that took us years to exorcise in ourselves.
Review: The New Faithful
The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, by Colleen Carroll, Loyola Press, 320 pp., $19.95
If you like newspaper feature stories, you will love this book. It applies the formula expertly: general statement, plus survey or on-scene expert remarks, plus interview quotes. Do it over and over, and you repeatedly connect the lines for the distracted reader. So doggedly does Colleen Carroll do this that the reader of this book, even when distracted further by this stop-and-go writing itself, nonetheless gets the point: The young are in rebellion again against their elders -- and again in the cause of freedom, novelty, and cutting-edge activities leading, with a little luck, to societal upheaval.
Right the first part, but not about freedom, except from libertinism, or novelty or upheaval. They rebel against elders, all right, but not in that same old liberal direction. Instead, they are embracing tradition and the traditional, turning from what their mamas and papas do and think or at least from what the young did and thought when their mamas and papas were young. They are The New Faithful, and Carroll, 28 years young -- twentysomething, she would say -- has their number.
She has traveled from New York to California, border to border, in search of people her age or thereabouts, mostly Roman Catholics, who have dug in their heels in the face of the liberal juggernaut and dug in for the long haul as committed Christians who won't say no.
There are the three Dominican brothers, priests to be, draped in white, bearing "easy smiles and the confident air of natural-born leaders . . . tall . . . and handsome," at the Washington, D.C., House of Studies. One of them "took a trip to Israel and felt the tug of radical commitment."
Another realized God was his "top priority." His conversion changed his life, making him "so much happier."
Carroll, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer, gives us careful by-the-book journalism for which we should be grateful: It's far removed from the hip and the smart-alecky and opinionated. But it also is a putting oneself at the mercy of one's interview, going with his words when they are mine-run commentary, if sincere.
Carroll also avoids some very interesting themes that go by the wayside as quotes pile up surrounding the phenomenon. The throwaway line by Christian author Os Guinness, who called Americans "conversion-prone" and on the lookout for change, for instance, has the potential to take us beyond the phenomenon. Carroll picks that up along her way but does nothing with it, because that's not her game. Her game is daily journalism in book form, for the distracted reader, and she does it cleanly and clearly enough.
She has by and large what's known as a "positive" message, softening the blow in reporting what is practically a schismatic U.S. scene: The Pope publicizes official teaching on abortion etc., but "many" U.S. priests do not, she tells us. "Some directly contradict the Vatican and encourage American Catholics to do the same." Others dodge issues to avoid alienating those who disagree, which doesn't always work. If this be reportage lite, it's about all she wants to say. She wants to tell us her mostly good news, breaking it gently at that.
She quotes a "thirtysomething" African-American father of four, his eyes glistening with tears as he recalls his small daughter confessing her sins to their Orthodox (capital "O") priest for the first time. "That grace. That's it," he said. Carroll has her quote and moves on.
She keeps her eyes open too. A college student buries head in hands and sobs when the priest brings out the sacred host for adoration at St. Louis University chapel. Eucharistic adoration, "exposition" of the Blessed Sacrament as it was known, "happily discarded" by their elders, is "exotic and appealing" to such students.
"Sometimes I just get so overwhelmed that I have to start crying," says a Notre Dame student about her Eucharistic adoration experience, "her brown eyes smiling." God, says the student, "just gives and gives and gives, over and over. If you begin to contemplate what you're being given, how do you respond to that?" she asks Carroll.
Another woman, at Christ (Episcopal) Church of Hamilton & Wenham, Mass., at mass "seemed almost sunken between the two pews, her frame curled into a near-fetal position . . . as if some invisible force had overshadowed her, and her only response was to crumble under its weight and divert her eyes from its splendor."
Carroll quotes a nay-sayer or two. U. of Chicago chaplain Fr. Willard Jabusch, who took his lumps from liberal readers of America Magazine for reporting a conservative trend among young people in a 1997 article, calls "bizarre . . . a nostalgia trip that I don't want to take" the Latin-mass culture at Chicago's St. John Cantius parish. A fellow Hyde Park-neighborhood priest, Fr. Zachary Hayes, a Franciscan theologian at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, calls it "worse than bizarre."
These lovers of the traditional "want a safe harbor, [they want] religion to pacify and solidify," says Hayes. Theirs is nostalgia "for a church that they've never experienced -- and I have. And I know what that church is like, and so I don't have that nostalgia. I don't want to go back there."
Carroll gives a flavor of opposition here, enough to tell us something there is that doesn't like this trend, on which, rightly, she concentrates her attention: it's what the book is about, after all.
"Boomers" are the older generation here, with what the new faithful consider "obsession with rationality," says Carroll. They are readers of Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, whose very mention draws groans from the new Christians. They seek to prove they are rational, but "Who cares?" asks McCormick Theological Seminary professor Melody Knowles, 31.
Not the new Christians, who find traditional worship "sexy and exotic," says Knowles. "The previous generation," on the other hand, "wimped out," embracing rationalism. The choice for tradition, on the other hand, she considers "kind of idealistic."
The new faithful are also sometimes unconventional and energetic. At Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Menlo Park, Calif., there's a "mosh pit" (not placed in quote marks by Carroll, whose intended readers know what a mosh pit is -- a crush at a rock concert into which daring young men and women might dive from stage in confidence they will be caught) on the sanctuary stage.
Man is not saved by mosh pits alone, however. Chicago-suburban Willow Creek Church minister Dieter Zander makes it and other options a way to open "the eyes of faith." In any case, it's out with didacticism, in with mystery. Nuns in Los Angeles sing "cherubic hymns in perfect unison" in a chapel with statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, Carroll tells us, finding their "rapt young faces . . . striking."
Explaining the new interest in religious orders and communities, she says the young are "seeking guidance and reassurance from father figures." They are "hungry for real fatherhood," says Fr. Michael Scanlan of Franciscan U., Steubenville, Ohio. "They want authenticity," says Os Guinness.
On most campuses, the new faithful find their professors too liberal, full of relativism and postmodernism. At the same time, postmodernism looks good to them because it sometimes gives them a place at the table. But it "reduces all to a preference," says Os Guinness.
To acquire a reason for the faith that is in them, the new faithful turn to Aquinas and natural law, with what amounts to an in-built defense against the accusation of being weird. Still, relativism is absorbed willy nilly, even by these Christians, some of whom have no interest in argument, only in stories, according to the director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard.
In general, campuses are the "refuge of 60s liberals . . . old fogies" who see students as different from themselves, says Opus Dei member Fr. C. John McCloskey, who works at Princeton, Columbia, and Yale evangelizing leaders.
Be that as it may or because of it, Fr. Bill Byrne at U. of Maryland-College Park pushes tradition in worship. He has returned the tabernacle to prominence in the chapel, encourages students to bow heads in reverence when reciting the Nicene Creed, incorporates saints' feast days into liturgy," and promotes other elements of students' grandparents', not parents', worship experience.
This pendulum swing to the age-old meets the needs of some students head-on: "I love the tradition," says one, who says it keeps him in the church.
So do religious schools, such as Christendom College, a Catholic school in Front Royal, Va., providing shelter from "the tide of promiscuity, partying, and postmodernism" with which students must contend at most campuses, says Carroll. Tired of the battle, these students are "eager to scrutinize their faith in the classroom."
Pursuit of political goals force decisions on the new faithful. There can be no playing dirty for the sake of the Lord in Washington or anywhere else. They become active in politics while convinced that worldly power is fleeting. They learn to pursue career goals while keeping them secondary. Letting God do the work, then tend to their motivation knitting first and foremost.
Young radicals of any stripe tend to be intolerant, says Carroll -- not on her own authority but reporting what others say. There is nothing authoritative in this book except in that sense, as befits the young age of its author. There is only reporting, and by the book: a dutiful rendering of he-said, she-said, he or she looked like this while saying it. What he or she said is backed up by survey or study. It's all tidy, and after a while, no matter the good news this messenger brings, or bad, depending on your position in these matters, it's a mite tedious.
On the other hand, she is sympathetic throughout, in that she gives a sympathetic, knowledgeable hearing to people often neglected or misrepresented by mainstream reporters and editors.
One of her best scenarios, one with the slightest edge to it, is her report on page 281 of the age-grouping of young people at a (progressive-radical) Call to Action convention in Milwaukee in 2000, where "the next generation" was defined as between 18 and 42 years old. This is poignant indeed as a paradigm of what the author reports convincingly is happening in the American Catholic Church.
Robert Blair Kaiser
Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
Posted 11 August 2002
Last revised 16 December 2002