I gave a talk recently about vocation and life in the seminary, to a group of people mainly in their 60s and 70s. One of the questions that often comes up with people of this age is whether the present generation of seminarians is more conservative than in the past. My answer is to say that these categories (‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’; ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’) don’t apply any more.
If you are trying to define yourself against other members of your church or religion, then these kinds of categories, however crude, might be necessary. But the key moment of self-definition for young Catholics today is simply whether to continue calling themselves Catholic or not; whether to deepen their Christian faith, or to reject it.
In a thoroughly secular culture, where friends, colleagues, and even family members are formed by secular values, the decision to hold onto a Catholic identity is the crucial one. Having made that radical decision, these young Catholics, quite naturally, want to deepen their interest Catholic teaching, in Catholic worship, in Catholic morality, etc. This is why they seem ‘conservative’. But they’re not really — they are simply Catholic.
Here is my sociological take on all this: Most older Catholics, say in their 60s or 70s, grew up secure in their Christian identity, with a culture that for the most part supported and reaffirmed that identity. The challenge for them was to get out of the ghetto and into the world; to become immersed in a secular culture they hardly knew, in order to influence and enlighten it. The secularisation of religion was perhaps a necessary part of this movement outwards.
But if you grow up in a culture almost completely devoid of any Christian influences, as young people do today, then the challenge for you is to find a Christian identity and lifestyle that will guide and sustain you. This is not about retreating into the ghetto or turning the clock back. It is first of all a matter of preserving your Christian roots, and nourishing your own faith. And then it’s about building up the self-confidence that allows you to engage with the secular culture from which you come (and which you never actually left).
This is why, it seems to me, the priority for young Catholics today is to create a strong Catholic identity and Catholic culture for themselves — which then allows them to dialogue with their peers and engage with the wider culture. They might seem to be conservative, but they are simply trying to be Catholic.
Remember that in darker ages it was the monks who made the best missionaries; it was those who stepped ‘inside’ and showed so much concern for the liturgy and the tradition who were then the ones with the courage to step ‘outside’ and embrace the world.
[After drafting this post I came across an article by John Allen entitled 'The next generation of Catholic leaders'. We seem to be thinking along similar lines...]