According to a 2008 study published by the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, a significant number of students at America’s colleges and universities reject most Catholic teachings in regards to morality, engage in all the sybaritic behaviors that have become normative for student life in secular universities, and say that attending a Catholic institution makes little or no difference in their support (or lack of support) for the Catholic Church. Grim news indeed, and unless there have been significant changes in Catholic academies since 2008, I doubt that much has changed. It seems that if parents are hoping that the environment of a Catholic college or university would by necessity be “Catholic,” they are actually mistaken. Their children might fare as well or better in a secular educational milieu. It seems that in terms of higher education, the “branding” of a college or university as being Catholic might still have some influence on parental preferences and even carry with it the impression of academic excellence, but as to its real meaning, one had better not just look at the branding, but at what the brand produces.
If young adults who have matriculated through Catholic colleges and universities show little difference in their attitudes and mores as compared to their secular counterparts, how are representatives of other believers holding up? A recent survey by the Evangelical Life Way Research group is illuminating in this regard. The data assembled represents the perspectives of the generation called Millenials or those born between 1980 and 1991. While 65% of those surveyed self identify as Christian, a majority of these rarely if ever read the Bible, believe that God is a being (perhaps we can forgive them for never having read St. Thomas Aquinas on this issue) and that Jesus committed sins, while one third agree with the statement “no one really knows what happens after we die.” Especially significant, given doctrines that have been the cornerstone of Evangelical movement, belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven is considered by respondents to be a 50/50 proposition. There is no room for any Catholic gloating given the dismal state of our own catechetical project, which despite ever more voluminous authoritative documents and the constant infusion of ever greater resources continues to produce what at best can only be described as a mediocre result. Besides, it is hardly good news for Catholics to note that Evangelicals are struggling just as much as we are to capture the hearts and minds of the youth with the unique transformative power of the Gospel.
What is going on here?
I must admit some element of surprise when reading the results of the Life Way Research survey because for years Evangelical efforts to reach out to young people have been viewed as the model. In fact, many Catholic efforts in regards to opportunities for the faith formation of the young have sought to imitate Evangelical forms and strategies. If the results of the Life Way study are any kind of guide, Evangelical efforts may be just as ineffectual as many of the ascendant Catholic models- at least in terms of communicating what Christians actually believe and why we profess such beliefs. There has been a great deal of commentary on these and related surveys with many proposing the reasons and possible solutions for this predicament, and I won’t simply repeat these conclusions. But I will assert that something of great importance has been missing in most of the commentary, a recognition that a peculiar theological ethos has taken hold of the mind and imagination of the Church in regards to the catechesis and evangelization of young people, and this ethos exercises what can only be described as unquestionable authority over the whole project. What seems clear from the Life Way research study and similar studies of Catholics is that both Evangelicals and Catholics share the same theological ethos and that the triumph of this ecumenical mindset has proved to be a pyrrhic victory for both.
The theological ethos that is generously resourced in both Catholic and Evangelical approaches is best described in the words of George Lindbeck as experiential expressive. The meaning of this term is of critical importance in order for us to understand the current state of religious education. Lindbeck describes his understanding of this phenomena in detail in his book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age. His basic idea is this: theological models which are experiential expressive view doctrines as expressions of inward experiences or as expressive symbols of emotional dispositions. In either case adjudicating or communicating the meaning of doctrines is subjective. When this model is in place, what Christians believe is less a matter of objective content, than the subjective disposition that is engendered by beliefs. It would seem, therefore, that it would be less important, at least in terms of this model, to communicate what precisely Christians believe and why, while more emphasis would be placed on the emotional resonance of Christian beliefs. In other words, according to this ethos, it is not as significant that Christ became incarnate, died and rose from the dead as it is how the Church’s beliefs about such things make us feel. Further, it is less significant in this model that these things actually took place in the objective form of Jesus of Nazareth, but what really matters is my subjective understanding of their meaning. It is from this ethos that the prevailing piety of our time emerges that insists that one can be “spiritual” without being “religious”, which is another way of saying that one’s faith has little if any objective content, but a great deal of subjective and emotional resonance. Lindbeck identifies the great precursor of all this as being the father of modern liberal theology: Frederich Schleiermacher.
I would argue that most strategies for the evangelization and catechesis of young people are derivations of the experiential expressive ethos. They represent this theological method in practice and the results speak not only in regards to the strategies that have been employed, but also for the ethos that has engendered the whole project. As long as this ethos is in place, be it in either a Catholic or Evangelical setting, we can expect surveys of our young people to reveal the same grim results. It has been believed that leading with an emphasis on personal experience and the subjective impressions of young people would have the effect of deepening their appropriation and understanding of the Faith. But has this been the case? The evidence from recent surveys demonstrates that while our young people might lack no certitude in regards to their spiritual impressions and religious experiences, their future as fully engaged and educated Christians is much less certain.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.