What does it mean for Catholicism when young Catholics gather from around the world to hear Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass, as 1.5. million of them did Sunday, August 21 in Madrid for World Youth Day? Veteran Vatican-watcher John Allen argued in a DePaul University talk last April that the most significant trend in Catholicism today is the recovery of traditional markers of Catholic identity, practice, and language by engaged young Catholics. These are the young Catholics at World Youth Day: young men and women who seek to know their faith more deeply and evangelize the culture in which they live.

But just what does World Youth Day tell us about young Catholicism, and youth in general? It tells us first that the old liberal-conservative division in American Catholicism is hopelessly outworn. These youth, with their demand for a strenuous and countercultural faith are confounding both those elite reformers who believe the Church would be stronger if it effected a rapprochement with secularism and certain traditionalists who wish all Catholics would return to the Latin Mass.

Young adults interested in Catholicism will probably not try to change church teachings on hard issues like women’s ordination and sexual morality. If the penalties for leaving Catholicism (both doctrinally and socially) are lower than in previous generations, why not just leave Catholicism for high-church Protestantism that often looks like Catholicism in liturgy but has fewer doctrinal obligations? Why not join one of thousands of generally non-hierarchical evangelical churches and pick the theology that suits you? And on the other hand, why would outdoor Mass-goers align themselves with a movement that longs for a return to the days before Vatican II?

Engaged Catholics are often naively unaware of the debates that divided previous generations of Catholicism. They are, for the most part, not interested in joining in these debates and reopening old wounds. They are not waiting for their parents, or even their priests or bishops, to tell them what to do. They are organizing Bible studies and service missions in the U.S. and abroad, and many college students have even asked clergy to bring back all-night Eucharistic adoration.

But if Allen is right that young Catholics are not interested in the issues that divided Catholics after Vatican II, then why did he express so much concern that Catholicism could fall into a “tribal” state of affairs in which “conservative” Catholics do not talk to “liberal” Catholics? Allen’s talk left me wondering: Will the “tribal” divisions among Catholics die out with those who lived through Vatican II? Or will the battle lines be re-drawn among these younger Catholics?

I agree with Allen that Catholic intellectuals and pastoral leaders should not push younger Catholics to take sides on debates that moved older generations of Catholics. We must remember that it is not the possibility of joining one or the other “side” of these debates that would motivate a busy nineteen-year-old college kid to attend Eucharistic adoration at 2 a.m. on a Saturday; rather, the young engaged Catholics are drawn in precisely by the beauty of Catholic traditions much older and much larger than the (mostly Western and mostly recent) liberal-conservative divide in Catholicism.

The central issues I see facing young adults are raised by modernity: what does it mean to profess the Creed in a skeptical society? How does one find a sense of purpose in a society that celebrates consumerism and individualism as its highest goals? How does one believe in a loving and merciful God”above all, a faithful God of steadfast and enduring love”in an era of transient and conditional relationships, when many Catholics will live through their parents’ divorce or their own failed relationships? In other words, why believe in anything , much less Catholicism?

In this context, old traditionalist clichés about resisting every element of the modern world, and old liberal clichés about embracing each one, take on a new meaning. These young Catholics, while perhaps occupying different positions on some social issues, are exploring the basic moral teachings of the Church and the ancient Catholic sacraments of communion and confession precisely because of what these have to offer modernity. So, on the one hand, Catholic reformers should not bemoan younger Catholics who seek traditional forms of worship like Eucharistic adoration, who want to receive communion on the tongue, and who request more opportunities to attend daily Mass and confession. On the other hand, Catholic traditionalists should not ridicule those young Catholics who, inspired by the church’s social justice tradition, fight for immigration reform, volunteer to serve our burgeoning prison population, or worry that some people may be losing out from globalization.

Catholics need to build a spirituality of friendship and communion . Sociologically speaking, Catholics are the largest single denomination in the U.S. and reflect every major social cleavage: class, race, education, and region. Catholics are fully part of and reflect American culture. While this multi-vocality of Catholicism should be deeply appreciated, it can also be divisive if differentiation leads to conflict rather than solidarity. Saying “I go to the Humane Vitae parish” or “I go to the social justice parish” suggests that one only embraces part of the Catholic tradition rather than the whole. To go on subscribing to such divisions, when our youth are giving us a strong example of the unity and vitality found in the basics of Catholic ritual life and Catholic teaching, is fruitless.

Allen pointed to some signs of hope that will help Catholics live this spirituality of friendship and communion, two of which were grassroots response to papal visits: Salt & Light (a media operation launched in Canada after 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto), and Catholic Voices (a U.K. media outreach that brought the testimonies of young Catholics in the U.K. to the airwaves when the first official papal visit there in 400 years occurred in 2010). What will World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid do for Catholicism worldwide? We should expect young Catholics to continue developing new forms of witness, showing that Catholics and all of humanity can transcend our differences and deeply held opinions to come together, understand each other, and build a world of faith and reconciliation. Perhaps they will not merely redraw the boundaries but erase them entirely.

Margarita Mooney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Faculty Fellow in the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina.

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