Sobering Questions from Notre Dame
Frank DeSiano, CSP
As summer gets underway, I am slowly making my way through Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults in, Out of, and Gone from the Church by Christian Smith, of Notre Dame University, and his co-authors.
It makes for sober reading. This book studies young people who have been objects of prior studies; now the prism is “emerging adults” aged 18-25. There is, of course, a ton of data-enough to make any head spin. But the book’s other value is how it contributes detail and color to the great underlying story of religion in our time: how hard it is to implant and nourish faith in our modern culture.
We have been wringing our hands over “inactive Catholics,” as well we should, for 30 years. How this term-inactive Catholic-has become more amorphous and complex gets plenty of demonstration in Smith’s book. If there was, at any time in our US/Canadian experience, a clear identity as a Catholic, this identity becomes harder to nail down in contemporary life.
Smith has a sophisticated “Excursus” just on the sociological question: who is to be identified as a Catholic? If self-identification does not work, what does? What practices count? Or what cluster of practices-what cluster of traits-allows people to be termed “Catholic”? Pages like this help us keep from overly-simple descriptions and ill-suited labels as we look at contemporary Catholic life.
One question this book raises for me is this: Apart from very closed religious communities (e.g., Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) who reinforce identity by distinct boundaries and strong social amassing, what religious expression today is successfully transferring faith, or even religious identity, to successive generations? As poorly as we feel we are doing, maybe, compared to most groups, we Catholics are doing a little better than most mainline churches.
With summer upon us, we evangelizers have opportunities to reach into the lives of young people and young adults. I remember very successful “Theology on Tap” gatherings when I was a pastor in Chicago. Smith’s book can help us think about the enormous pressures, and varied experiences, of these younger generations-not as a lost cause, but as a very different soil into which we are implanting the Seed of the Word of God.
I will look at other aspects of this important book in our next issue of Evangelization Exchange.