I reported on Wednesday that I had attended a meeting of youth ministers at the chancery of the Diocese of Orlando, and during that meeting the participants were given an opportunity to discuss their personal and local concerns about their current anxieties in the field. I was able to find several threads in the spoken concerns: (1) a frustration in getting the Church’s teachings across to teenagers on matters of sexuality; (2) deep concern about the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage; (3) a general despair that American immorality was malignantly invasive and would swallow us up, and (4) some hints of a siege mentality, “us against the world” as if Catholic ministry is now the final battle of Armageddon.
With regard to the first point, I felt and feel great sympathy for the group and others like them, for youth ministers and formational educators are in many respects taking the fall for a bigger problem in American Catholicism, that perhaps a quarter of practicing Catholics at best can claim to be living in full solidarity with the Catechism’s articulation of Church sexual teaching. This state of affairs can hardly be dropped at the door of present-day formational ministers. A number of informed commentators point to a break in lay adherence occurring at the issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968, which reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control. There were several participants this week who raised the need for more effective programs or resources; although, given the personalized nature of faith sharing that seems to work with teens, I wondered to myself if any catechist would (or should) discuss with inquiring fifteen year old minds who asks how the catechist squares adherence to Church law with parenting a 2 or 3 child family.
A number of ministers brought up the issue of homosexuality among teens, specifically boys. “It’s in to be gay now.” This concern seems to be two-fold: that being gay is itself a condition of degeneracy, and that homosexuality ipso facto destroys the hetero-sexual family model. Here is where experience—including one’s own youth--and a sense of history serves a minister well. I was a teen from 1961 through 1968 and we all drank from the well water of utopianism, arrogance (the great constant of every generation) and self-indulgence, in my case in a boarding school seminary, no less. In my early twenties I gave weekend retreats to both CCD and Catholic school students at a time when self-awareness and feelings ran wild among our charges.
Jump ahead to the 1990’s in my early psychotherapy days when teenaged girls equated self-esteem with servicing on demand the sexual needs of their male counterparts surreptitiously in school. I, who did a semester’s work on women’s liberation in 1972, found this really, really perplexing. I asked gingerly if there was reciprocity in all this, and in every case the young ladies would say no, that they did all the work. “That sounds a little demeaning,” I would say, as delicately as a 50-ish gentleman can broach such matters. The retort was usually the same: “But it’s my choice.”
Fortunately God let me live into the next teen era, when parents would phone me because their teens were becoming Goths. I found my Goth “patients” very entertaining. Several of them explained the Goth scene to me in extremely lucid and coherent fashion. In short, the Gothic culture in our local high schools had taken shape because the general student populace looked with scorn upon kids who read and studied; sometimes serious students were beaten. “I’m a Goth because I want to study and I know somebody’s got my back. We get some respect now.” Hard to argue with that. Some were very inventive: I remember one young man whose parents refused to buy him black sneakers, so he crafted them out of electrician’s tape.
Sadly, youth ministry has such a high turnover rate that there is no collective “ministerial memory” to draw from, so see a commonality with teenaged behaviors and needs in earlier periods. Another anomaly of youth ministry is its polarity from the style of Christian initiation, where the candidate is actively encouraged to tell his or her story. With teenagers, there is a great temptation to “set them straight” rather than process their journeys, which are often grace-filled and very interesting, albeit with a diamond in the rough motif.
With regard to my second and third observations, I have been amazed by the reactions of mainstream America to two matters of public morality, the aforementioned issue of same-sex marriage and the reaction to the devastating shooting of nine praying church-goers in Charleston, with the attendant dismantling of the Confederate flag. Ten years ago I would never have expected to see either. One can interpret this summer’s events, perhaps for our purposes most notably the same-sex marriage court decision, in a number of ways. Yes, there is a major gulf between public and civil acceptance of such marriage and Catholic moral teaching. By the same token, there is a major gulf between attitudes toward homosexuals today and what they were a generation ago. Can one read the events of this summer with at least a glimmer of relief that society erred on the side of fairness and understanding rather than in the direction of continued targeting of our neighbors and families who are “different” in ways that we don’t fully understand? In their incomplete and one dimensional ways, teenagers bring this kind of reasoning to the moral forum.
As to point four, fear of moral collapse and the end times have always been with us. In one of my medieval history courses the professor described a great fear of the disintegration of order and society at some juncture. The cause? The invention of a crossbow that could pierce a knight’s armor and thus end civilized warfare as then known. Ah, for the old days.
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