Today’s young, orthodox Catholics aren’t ecclesial revanchists motivated a desire to turn back that clock we’re always informed can never stop ticking. In general, they’re very much engaged with the world around them, and not inclined to shut themselves off in isolation. In short, they’re self-consciously orthodox, which is, it should be said, not the same thing as having naturally and unreflectively lived a certain way. It probably couldn’t have been any other way: A postconciliar generation (or two) of Catholics who remain in the faith have seen the diverging interpretations, and by and large have embraced one of them.
But can a sense of ‘having chosen’ a return to orthodoxy ever be problematic? In a blog post at dotCommonweal, J. Peter Nixon suggests it can be to the extent it mirrors a consumerist mindset. Much of it you might have heard before, and there are unfortunately some overstatements (see the reference to “bare-knuckled tactics” by ecclesial “conservatives”–the kind of language more appropriate to election-night punditry). But one observation in his column, in particular, grabbed me:
Younger Catholics, for the most part, are simply not attached enough to the Church as an institution to think “institutionally” about their theological commitments. Communal dialogue is something you engage in because you have a community. The majority of younger Catholics—like a majority of younger Christians—are spiritual consumers. If they are dissatisfied, they will choose “exit” rather than “voice.”
I’d put a little more faith in young Catholics than that–I’m not sure it’s fair to diagnose their loyalty to the Church as a whole as so transient that they’d simply “exit” if they stopped being “satisfied.” But Nixon is on to something with his categorization of “choice” vs. “voice.” (and for more on the specific allusion he’s making, see this). This is anecdotal, but virtually all of the youngish (say, under-35) orthodox Catholics I know, for example, don’t attend Mass at their local parish. They’ll travel long distances–sometimes, clear across cities–to certain “special” chapels or “traditionalist parishes” or order houses where a dynamic priest keeps them coming back. In many ways this is highly commendable: That someone is willing to take significant additional time out of their day to commute to church signifies a deep commitment to the liturgy and an impressive grasp of its importance. And it’s a sympathetic dilemma: Certainly, young people don’t do this to spite their canon-law pastor, but they do often find the services on offer in their bailiwick in some sense impoverished, or the preaching theologically wayward, or the architecture grossly midcentury, and for the good of their spiritual health decide they can and must find a home elsewhere.
But should this be the end goal? Might it be fruitful to encourage a way of thinking that emphasizes not only the individual’s conscious embrace of orthodoxy (key though individual response has always been in Catholicism), but which also sees this commitment as eventually settling, becoming the norm, and integrating itself into the existing framework rather than subsisting outside of or in a subculture of it? This, then, would seem to be an emerging challenge for the “movement” back towards orthodoxy. We’ve become, maybe by accident, accustomed to a sort of “remnant” mindset rather than an institutional one, to prophetic denunciations from without but with not enough “working within.” So perhaps it’s time for “self-conscious” young Catholics to start seeing themselves less as dissidents and “choosers” and more simply as part of the future of the Church, and begin working out what that means.