Given the abundance of recent data about the waning of the Christian faith among the young, it might seem foolhardy to suggest that Catholic theology may be on the verge of resurgence. Certainly, many observers warn of theological malaise; some theologians are called to task by ecclesiastical authorities; and the mid-20th-century generation of “great theologians” has passed. Yet theologians can discern the future reflected in today’s students, including those of the North American Jesuit universities, some of whom aspire to become theologians themselves.
Over the years I have met a wide variety of students and reflected on the theological education offered them. Without the baggage of ecclesiastical battles and culture wars, students come with whatever they have received from parents and teachers. Increasingly, students reflect not only the cultural and ethnic diversity of society but also some of the wider culture’s positive values, like a strong yearning for a just social order.
Some students claim multiple religious identities and express faith in new ways; they eschew dogmatism and show openness toward people unlike themselves. They are accustomed to immersion in other worlds. Many, even students raised in nonreligious environments, exhibit an ethic of service. Some students pursue a theological vocation not in order to become professional theologians but as part of their search for a theological horizon to inform their lives. A handful will pursue graduate work in theology or ministry, including Protestants who seek a systematic framework for theological reflection. Such students are forcing the current custodians of the flame to imagine with them the future shape of Catholic theology. Who are these students?
Idealistic realists. Contemporary students were born into a world after modernity. They lack some of the opportunities their parents and teachers enjoyed at their age, despite the Vietnam War and the upheavals of the 1960s: availability of loans, a robust job market and relative social stability. But their parents and teachers, especially those now around age 60, were then living in the final stages of a modern era that was quickly unravelling. The frameworks of coherence that were part of the modern “project” were disintegrating in the wake of two world wars, the bomb and the advent of modern forms of genocide.
What marks the present age is a growing sense of incoherence and threat, born of an increasing awareness of poverty, the effects of total war, the implosion of political and religious institutions, ecological disaster and endangerment of life on the planet. Still, students today, perhaps with the perenniel idealism of youth, want to help and serve. Rather than escape into a spiritual fantasyland, they see no salvation outside of engaging a reality they all share. They are idealistic realists.
Pioneers. As many students see it, religious energy is mushrooming. It is found not only in Catholicism’s ecclesial movements (ranging from Sant’Egidio to Communione e Liberazione) but in the growth of neo-Christian movements and “churches” in developing countries, as well as in the megalopolises (like Los Angeles) of developed countries. Students also see the energy of religion outside Christianity, in Islam and Islamic movements, in Hinduism and even in Buddhism, which is an “institutional religion” with its own texts, rituals and ethical codes. And they witness the muscle-flexing of postcolonial churches in Africa and Asia and the crisscrossing of religious traditions, sometimes within their own families. Many have a mixed religious heritage (Buddhist and Christian, Islamic and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, Jewish and Christian). Some students even participate in religious practices like Wicca and “paganism.” Within this universe of energy, they are looking for roots. Many hunger for the solid food of theology and a linkage with ancient Christian traditions, even as they also seek to enter non-Christian religious worlds. These students challenge theological views that are too exclusivist or rigid in their understanding of the religious others in their midst. Living within this mix, these students are pioneers.
Cultural experts. Today’s students are accustomed to a world linked by technology and popular culture. Communication transcends the particularities of place and creates a sense of cultural simultaneity across the globe. The students know one another’s cultures in uncanny ways. Despite being tethered to smart phones, Facebook and Twitter, they recognize superficiality when they see it and desire something profound instead. That desire is expressed in music and film, where messages for peace, toleration and care for the earth establish a credo among many students who are not rooted in religious observance but seek the depths of being human.
There are dangers associated with popular culture and a pan-culture of hedonism (that lures their elders as well). But it is a mistake to label popular culture the enemy of faith, casting it as a “culture of death” and fighting it rather than working within it to learn from it. A rejection of popular culture risks rejecting prophetic sensibilities that might otherwise be missed. Students are cultural experts in some ways that their elders cannot be.
Spiritual, not religious. One should not be too quick to condemn the “I’m spiritual, not religious” mantra of many students, for it may express a desire for more depth than they are being fed in mainstream religious education.
Two dimensions of Christian faith have deep appeal to many of these students. First is their discovery that faith is not the same thing as assent to dogma or adherence to religious duty. Religion in these senses attends faith but does not describe it. Rather, faith is the acceptance of the gift of God’s love in the person of Jesus. It is a relationality “more intimate to me than I am to myself,” to quote St. Augustine. When shared and communicated, that relationality establishes a community of faith. When students see it this way they are freed to focus on the heart of the matter and to appreciate the classical expressions of faith, like the creeds and council teachings.
The second dimension is the notion of God as mystery: God as incomprehensible, ineffable, endlessly knowable and lovable yet not possibly contained or summed up within a single doctrinal formulation. God is not an object alongside others. This too is freeing. It allows students to discover how their search for the spiritual dovetails with the deepest parts of their religious selves. The choice is not between atheism and faith but between simplistic formulations of faith and a journey through life into their own transcendent depths. Many students seek to be religious with spiritual depth.
No-nonsense Catholics. Like their elders, many students hope for a transformed church. Even non-Catholic students express as much. Their hopes do not issue from any failure of their elders to embrace the Second Vatican Council, for this generation was born long after the council, which they identify (rightly) as a mid-20th-century event, a product of the waning days of modernity and its optimism. Very many young men and women express a desire for ordination as long as they can also be married.
What bothers these students, at least as much as hypocrisy and clerical sexual abuse, are the foppish trappings of hierarchical clericalism. They seek a vital, Gospel-imbued Catholicism that is contemporary. They consider as “no-brainers” the ideas that the church should: be conversant with science, popular culture and secularity (not threatened by them); allow ordination to married men or women; engage other religions in positive ways; reflect a deeper understanding of marriage; accept homosexuals in committed partnerships; and serve the poorest and listen to their voices. Many students seek a church where they can pray deeply. When they visit Maryknoll missionaries working with AIDS victims in Namibia or Jesuits working with gangs in Los Angeles, for example, the students describe this as the church “at its best.” These are no-nonsense Catholics.