Two and a half years ago, I went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to give a lecture on “the soul of John Paul II” and to have a dinner-discussion with Smith’s religion faculty and senior religion majors. Smith is one of the academic centers of American feminism, and given academic feminism’s usual take on this pontificate, I was a bit concerned that the afternoon and evening could turn dicey. On the contrary. My lecture was heard respectfully, the questions were intelligent, and the dinner discussion was polite, engaging, and intellectually stimulating. Smith’s faculty and students even took the Pope’s challenging “theology of the body” seriously – which is more than can be said for the editors of Commonweal, among others in the Catholic opinion business.
All of which prompted the thought that something interesting was afoot in Gen X, or Gen Y, or whatever generation we’re in these days.
Now comes Colleen Carroll, one of the brightest young Catholic writers in America, with a book painting a similar picture on a much broader canvas.
After several years as a beat reporter and editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen Carroll was awarded a Phillips Journalism Fellowship, which allowed her to spend a year going around the country talking to Christians who are young, bright, professionally successful – and quite passionately orthodox in their religious and moral convictions. The results of Carroll’s research are now available in The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola University Press).
The “new faithful” come from different ethnic, religious, educational, and family backgrounds. Some grew up in devout Catholic or Protestant families and drifted away, only to return to the faith with fervor. Others skated along on the surface of the consumer society until the hollowness of the world depicted in Abercrombie & Fitch ads created an ache that purchasing-power couldn’t heal. Still others pursued fast-track academic and professional careers, and then found that success was empty without something more, something deeper.
But whatever the path they took, the “young orthodox” have one trait in common: they find Christian orthodoxy an exhilarating, exciting adventure. Unlike their parents’ generation (i.e., mine), which grew up at a time when the smart thing to do was to put down tradition, reverence, doctrine, and a demanding morality, the new generation of “new faithful” aren’t interested in how little they can believe and how little they have to do to stay “inside” the Church. They’re interested in exploring the fullness of Christian truth and making it their own.
That exploration takes place in a host of settings. Some are traditionally parish- or campus-based. But there are also Gen X innovations like Regeneration Forum, a network of reading-and-discussion groups in more than two dozen cities, and “The Vine,” an occasional ecumenical conference of Gen X-ers interested in issues of faith and culture.
According to Colleen Carroll’s research, the “new faithful” are not the quietists some skeptics might expect them to be. They are actively engaged in bringing their convictions into public life through instruments like “Faith and Law,” an ecumenical study group of young, orthodox Christian Congressional staffers. (As an occasional speaker at “Faith and Law” breakfast seminars, I can testify to the seriousness of the discussion and the Christian commitment of its members). Gen X “new faithful” are passionately pro-life; indeed, as Carroll points out, one of the striking (and virtually unreported) phenomena of American politics today is that the pro-abortion forces are getting older and greyer while the pro-life world is displaying a much younger face.
Colleen Carroll’s book is replete with wonderful human stories of spiritual struggle followed by conversion. Those stories also pose a challenge to secularists, and to those determined to deconstruct Catholicism into high-church Unitarianism: the clock is ticking, and the world isn’t working out the way you thought it would. The great human adventure remains the adventure of orthodoxy. It beats the flat, arid world of secularism. It beats the frantic world of shop-’til-you-drop hyper-consumption. It beats the brave new world of a remanufactured humanity.
And it beats Catholic Lite. Which is one reason why there are far more young faces at “The Vine” that at “Call to Action” conventions.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.