Notes from across the Atlantic
FAITH Magazine March – April 2011
(a) by Peter Mitchell
YOUNG AMERICAN CATHOLICS: RETURNING TO ORTHODOXY?
In an ironic twist, part of the campus of the Catholic University of America (CUA), namely the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, has become the focal point for a generation of young American Catholics who are passionately committed to speaking out in defence of the right to life for the unborn. The annual National March for Life, held each year on January 22, the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous Roe v. Wade decision legalising abortion, regularly sees upwards of 400,000 Catholics, Evangelicals, and others proceed down Washington D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue to the steps of the Supreme Court to pray and witness in defence of life. The march has arguably become one of the most inspiring and uplifting days on the American Catholic calendar, especially inrecent years as the event has become more and more overtly a rally composed predominantly of young people. It seems that any young American Catholic who wants to be where the action is tries to attend. The irony lies in the fact that some 45 years ago, CUA was the centre of a very different sort of youth rally supported by a very different generation of young American Catholics.
Nowadays, the annual Mass and Prayer Vigil for Life, held the night before the march in the vast basilica, has become such a crammed and cramped experience that youth groups who wish to attend must arrive four to six hours early if they want so much as merely a space to sit on the floor. Additional Masses are held around the clock to accommodate the thousands of school groups, parish youth groups, families, and others who find whatever way they can to make it to Washington from all over the country for the march. The crypt of the basilica becomes a giant dormitory for the night, with sleeping bags and inflatable air mattresses filling every available nook and cranny. Meanwhile, Eucharistic adoration throughout the night is always filled with young people offering up an unceasing litany ofRosaries, Chaplets of Divine Mercy, songs, and silent prayer, while any priest who sits down and puts on a stole to offer the Sacrament of Penance will quickly find a line of young people forming for confession and could easily spend several hours dispensing the healing power of Christ's sacramental grace to his children.
Here in Nebraska we are a mere 1,200 miles from Washington, which translates into a 24-hour overnight ride on chartered buses for those who wish to participate in the march. This year over 400 students from our Catholic high schools as well as the University of Nebraska made the trek, willingly enduring a total of 48 hours sandwiched together without showers or beds for the sake of just two full days at the march and connected events. When I asked the 21 -year-old student leader of the trip what was the chief motivation behind him and his fellow undergraduates making the journey, he replied that it was primarily a spiritual motivation: "Because it is an overwhelming experience to be united with so many other young people in praying together and witnessing to the joy of being pro-life."Another young man, wearing a Divine Mercy T-shirt and sporting a Rosary wrapped around his wrist, also acknowledged that their sacrifice had a partly political motivation: "We want to show our President and our government that we are a pro-life nation." He and his friends meet weekly at 8 a.m. outside the local abortion mill to pray the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy as Planned Parenthood opens for its gruesome business. The young priest who accompanied the students, the chaplain at the Newman Centre student parish, said that while he would perhaps not have been motivated to put in the time and effort to go to the March for Life on his own, the enthusiasm and desire of his students convinced him that he needed to attend with them personally. "They realise that someone has to stand upand say that abortion is wrong," he said. The generation that has lost one out of five of its members to abortion in this country seems to be more poignantly aware than any other of the tragic cost of the culture of death as well as the ever-present urgency of the need to confront its lies courageously. Yet at the same time, one of the most overwhelming and evident aspects of the March for Life is the contagious joy which pervades the entire gathering, the exuberant and spontaneous display of belonging and being committed together to the cause of goodness and right. The march is no dour or mournful gathering of angry political activists. It is rather a convincingly joyful witness to the beauty and truth of the Gospel of Life.
Yet, and here is the irony, back in the spring of 1967 American Catholic youth gathered in the very same National Shrine to rally in support of Father Charles Curran, the then-youthful leader of a generation of theologians who dissented against the moral teaching of the Magisterium. Less than fifty years ago nearly the entire student body of CUA went on strike to protest the dismissal of Curran from his post as assistant professor of theology by the CUA Board of Trustees - composed entirely of American bishops. Curran had come under investigation by the bishops for his controversial teaching in the area of sexual morality. The youthful protesters who demonstrated on CUA's campus, supported by faculty and students at Catholic universities across the United States, demanded - in the name ofacademic freedom - that Curran be reinstated. The passion and enthusiasm with which that generation of youth rallied led to Curran's reinstatement, with tenure, as a full professor of theology at the nation's sole Pontifical university. From that unassailable platform, in the name of steering the Church to a place where its teaching would be "relevant," Curran was able to lead theologians across the United States in their definitive Statement of Dissent from Paul Vl's encyclical Humanae Vitae in the following summer of 1968. The long term result of that youthful movement of dissent has been that an entire generation of American Catholics still exists that by and large knows very little of the beautiful vision of Catholic moral teaching on marriage and family.
Curran's moment of appearing to embody the future of the American Catholic Church came and went. While the presence of dissent in the theology faculties of America's Catholic colleges and universities has had and continues to have a remarkable half-life, it is apparent today that such dissent is only "relevant" to those who are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the life of the American Catholic Church. The theology of dissent certainly does not have any significant foothold among the under-30 generation who form the backbone of the pro-life movement in this country. Their lived experience of the effects of contraception, abortion, divorce, and infidelity on their generation has made them passionate about the need for our entire culture - not only Catholics - to embrace the challenge andauthentic freedom embodied in the fullness of the Church's teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality. The proverbial tide has turned in favour of the truth of the Gospel of Life among today's generation of young Catholic witnesses.
What was the turning point in this cultural and ecclesiological shift? It is always dangerous to try and pinpoint exact decisive moments in such massive changes, but surely one of the more dramatic ones was Pope John Paul II's 1993 pilgrimage to Denver, Colorado for the sole World Youth Day to date to have been held in these United States. In that historic and transforming encounter, John Paul the Great (soon to be declared Blessed!) challenged the youth of America to proclaim the Gospel without shame or fear from the rooftops of America. Ignoring the warnings of American bishops that American teenagers would not likely be very interested in listening to what the Church had to say, John Paul called down an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the 800,000 youth who gathered with him in theMile High City, taking as his theme the words of Our Lord in John 10:10, "I came that they might have life." His memorable words issued a resounding challenge to the youth of America to become missionaries to their own people: "This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern 'metropolis'." World Youth Day 1993 remains to this day a common point of reference for many thirty- and forty-something American Catholics, a moment where we realised that we were not alone. With the courage that John Paul II brought us, we found we could witness to other Americans and especially to other Catholics about the beautyand excitement of being totally committed to our faith. Twenty-five years after the summer of dissent that was 1968, John Paul II ignited a fire in the hearts of young American Catholics, an ardent passion for the Gospel of Life that has only increased in intensity in the nearly two decades since 1993.
Many of the tens of thousands of members of "Generation Y" who now descend on CUA's campus each January were not even born when John Paul II issued his challenging call to the youth of America at Denver. Remarkably, however, they are no less corporately passionate about the same beautiful gift: the fullness of the truth of the Church's teaching about life. They wear T-shirts sporting pictures of Pope John Paul II or broadcasting quips such as "I love my German shepherd," an affectionate term for their Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Few of them, if any, would have any idea of who Father Charles Curran is. Dissent and rebellion is out, orthodox and holiness is in. Living in the midst of a culture of death, the only teaching that these witnesses of the Third Millennium find "relevant" isdynamic fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. As a result, the future looks bright for the pro-life movement on these shores. Asked when he intends to stop making the annual trek to Washington for the march for Life, my young friend replied without hesitation, "I won't stop going until abortion is outlawed...and even then we will all continue to pray and witness to the sanctity of life until the whole world sees the beauty of the truth." It just might be a great millennium.
RANTS OF NEW CHAIR
Stop us the next time we complain about Fr. Richard McBrien. Here's Robert Orsi, holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University holding forth on the Catholic Church:
Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women's equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children's autonomy and reproductive choice. The Church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom! The current papacy stands firmly and explicitly in opposition to virtually everything those of us who call ourselves liberal moderns cherish.
"Women's equality", "the freedom of sexual identity" and "reproductive choice" - the usual litany of the Church's crimes against the spirit of our age. (We're not entirely sure what to make of "respect for children's autonomy".) We don't expect a cheerleader in the chair, but we would think a professor of Catholic studies might have some respect for his subject. We can't imagine a chair of, oh, Islamic studies or German studies or African studies or, heck, any other studies, offering such a rant.
Some notable percentage of Americans still believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (the number was 18 percent last August). His supporters are enraged, his opponents (excluding the 18 percent) suitably embarrassed. But consider the following:
A CNN/Time Magazine poll in 1997 reported that 80 percent of Americans believed the U.S. government was hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life.
A Gallup Poll in 1999 showed that 6 percent of Americans believed the moon landings were a hoax.
A study of African-Americans conducted in 2005 by the Rand Corporation and Oregon State University showed that about 25 percent believed AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed the CIA created the virus.
In a 2006 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 36 percent said it was "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that "federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them because 'they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East'."
As many people have noted, this is the price we pay for a free society. It's also the price we pay for neglecting the commandment against bearing false witness (it's the ninth one, if you're keeping count), which implies the responsibility to get the facts right. Culture-warring Christians might remember that.