Today's non-practising young Catholics: are Church conservatives to blame?

Today's non-practising young Catholics: are Church conservatives to blame?

Michael Gilchrist

Statistics on the miniscule belief and practice levels of today's young Catholics are undeniable. But there is considerable disagreement as to the causes of this sorry situation.

A recent report in The Australian (27 August) referred to claims by one of Australia's best known priests, Fr Frank Brennan SJ, that the crisis of faith among the young was the fault of the Church's conservatives. Fr Brennan was reported as saying that the push by conservatives for greater Vatican control was driving young people away from the Church.

However, extensive surveys of thousands of Catholic students, teachers and parents since the early 1970s by the late Br Marcellin Flynn of Australian Catholic University (Sydney) traced a process of steady decline in knowledge and practice of the faith over a 30 year period. The latest Mass attendance figure for recent school leavers, according to the Catholic Church Life Survey, is under five percent.

Other research by Professor Denis McLaughlin of ACU (Brisbane) has presented a similar picture among Catholic teachers and student teachers.

Fr Brennan's comments were made in August on the ABC's religion program Compass and during an address to the Sandhurst Diocese Secondary Education Conference.

During his Sandhurst address, Fr Brennan said: "All of us need to accept that the revolution in sexuality has left many people (especially young people) completely uninterested in the views of an all-male, unmarried clergy ...

"If we provide our Catholic graduates only with a rule book of 'do's' and 'don'ts' issued by the bishops, we know that many of those graduates will throw the book in the bin very soon after their departure from the school."

He apparently had Cardinal George Pell in mind in making these remarks for he described Dr Pell's approach to the present crisis of faith among the young as "a style of teaching that I find incomplete in that it did not embody for me the fullness of the Catholic tradition."

Fr Brennan continued: "Young people do not want only to be told what to do and what to believe. They are more likely to listen if they think they are being heard, respectfully".

Such sentiments reflect the thinking of most teachers, experts and bureaucrats involved in Catholic education over the past 30 years - the years of decline. This thinking has mostly governed the approaches adopted in Catholic schools over that period.

Up until recently, most young Catholics - particularly in secondary schools - have been offered religion programs devoid of do's and don'ts, Hell, mortal sin, the Ten Commandments, memorisation of doctrines and anything else considered difficult or unappealing. In their place have been social awareness, current issues, moral dilemmas, comparative religions and class discussions. There has been no lack of respectful listening to students' opinions.

But despite the well-meaning efforts of our educators, the overwhelming majority of Catholic graduates have voted with their feet and thrown in their lot with the secular culture, with some of them joining fundamentalist sects or Eastern religions that seemed to offer bread rather than fairy floss.

At the same time, religions stressing "do's and don'ts", presenting their doctrines confidently, making demands of their members and having a clear identity - such as the Mormons, Pentecostals and Muslims - have retained the loyalties of their younger members who seem receptive to challenges, demands, authority, distinctive identity and clear structures.

Pope John Paul II, with his uncompromising approach to doctrines and morals, has had an obvious appeal for many young people, evident in particular during World Youth Days.

Fr Brennan, according to The Australian, also said young Catholics were "turned off the priesthood by an increasingly autocratic and doctrinaire Catholic Church that is out of touch with the 21st century". This also flies in the face of the facts.

Most seminaries in Australia from the late 1960s until recently were run along the lines he seems to favour, with a flexible approach to liturgy and doctrine and less emphasis on discipline and more traditional spiritual formation. This approach has seen numbers steadily fall away with some dioceses today having no-one in training.

However, recent seminary reforms in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, with greater stress on priestly identity, strong spiritual formation, more self-discipline, fidelity to doctrine, and obedience to papal and episcopal authority, have seen encouraging upturns in numbers that defy the general trend.

This has been the pattern in the United States where research has shown that dioceses under outspokenly orthodox leadership and with well-structured seminaries have attracted far more young men to the priesthood than their liberal counterparts.

Religious life

The picture is the same with religious life (both in Australia and the US) where communities with a clear identity, strong spiritual formation, fidelity to Catholic teachings and obedience to Church authority are attracting significant numbers of young men and women. Those orders which are seen as "trendy" have continued to decline towards extinction.

The Church's future with young people lies not in further accommodation to prevailing fashions but on a more counter-cultural approach with a vigorous reaffirmation of its unique identity and an unapologetic presentation of its doctrines and moral teachings. This needs to occur from the first years of primary school through to Year 12, as well as at Catholic universities. Meanwhile, re-evangelising the parishes along these lines is an urgent priority. Time is running out.

The new religion texts launched by Cardinal Pell when he was Archbishop of Melbourne - and now being introduced in the Sydney, Armidale, Lismore and Wollongong dioceses - have been a step in the right direction.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.