Several French dioceses, seeking to promote their 2018 fundraising drive, had a few young Catholics take a selfie with a young priest. It was the perfect marketing image of diverse, democratic youth—but for one problem. The priest wore a cassock. This long black garment, with its thirty-three buttons, is favored by young priests who have made it the uniform of resurgent tradition. It is the symbol of what young Catholics are, and of what older Catholics don’t want them to be.
Three of the dioceses issued a doctored photo in which the priest appears to be wearing blue jeans. His cassock buttons, representing the years of Christ’s life, were airbrushed away. With a little manipulation, the authorities produced an image of youth acceptable to the old.
Something similar occurred this week at the Vatican, where three hundred youths selected by silver-haired bishops were asked to tell those bishops what young people really want. They were charged with drafting a working document, which the bishops will consult at the Synod on Youth, scheduled for October. In an opening address to this pre-synodal meeting, Pope Francis said he hoped the event would lead to “a church with a young face.” But the result is a botched plastic surgery, a grotesquerie of old ideas stretched and reshaped to mimic youth.
The document is supposed to have been written by young Catholics for the benefit of bishops, but it eerily repeats what certain bishops have long been saying. For instance, the “youths” declare: “Sometimes, in the Church, it is hard to overcome the logic of ‘it has always been done this way.’” But at the opening of the meeting, Francis had said the same thing: “You provoke us to break free of the logic of ‘it has always been done this way.” This is not a dialogue; it is an echo.
This makes the document significant—and unsettling. The document manifests an aversion to whatever is sacred, holy, divine. It laments that “sometimes we feel that the sacred appears to be something separated from our daily lives.” But that is the precisely the meaning of the word “sacred”—that which is set apart.
Sanctity is slyly disparaged. “Sadly, not all of us believe sainthood is something achievable and that it is a path to happiness,” the authors say—and they seem to include themselves among the doubters. They believe that “erroneous ideals of model Christians feel out of reach to the average person.” What the youth want instead is “a confidant without judgement.” Erring people are held up as the real models of faith, as though Mary’s sinlessness made her distant and cold.
Priesthood and religious life are also deflated. “While these are sacred calls that should be celebrated,” the document wants us to realize the importance of other vocations, including “lay ministry,” “marriage and family,” and something called “role in society.” Passive-aggressive comments on women’s role in the Church reflect the general bias (“There are great examples of women serving in consecrated religious communities and in lay leadership roles. However…”) After all, if the cloister holds no honor, shouldn’t women want more? If the priesthood is not something set apart and given definite shape, why keep women from it?
Christian morality is likewise called into question. The document asks the Church to open a discussion of homosexuality and gender, “which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.” (In fact, it is hard to think of any topic more surrounded by taboo among both young and old than the sin of sodomy—mere use of the word is enough to elicit denunciation and shunning.) The authors note that “there is often great disagreement among young people” about contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and the priesthood. In consequence, “they may want the Church to change her teaching.” Every one of these complaints is a challenge to the Christian idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and so are not our own. We cannot use them however we wish, because they are sacred, set apart for the Lord.
The document even manifests a strange prejudice against the consecrated space of the sanctuary. Its authors declare: “Above all, the place in which we wish to be met by the Church is the streets.” They further mention “bars,” “gyms,” “parks,” “coffee shops,” “stadiums,” “the workplace,” “prisons,” “orphanages,” “hospitals,” “rehabilitation centers,” “red-light districts,” “war-torn regions,” “marginal neighborhoods,” “rural areas” … apparently the Church should be everywhere but in the churches. At points, the document’s attitude toward sacred ground seems almost hostile (“people are the Church, not the building”)—like those poor demon-possessed characters who cannot pass through church doors.
All this amounts to a kind of functional Arianism, a stress on the Church’s human dimension at the expense of the divine. The document laments that people perceive Christ “as distant from the human experience.” In order to overcome this gap, the document urges us to “understand more deeply the person of Christ, His life, and His humanity.” His divinity goes unmentioned.
This document does not speak for young Catholics. It fails to represent either the Catholic faith or the young people who profess it. It conjures and condemns a Church that is too institutional, too hierarchical, too focused on the sacred at the expense of the world. This image of the Church is a holdover from the 1950s, when the men who now lead the Church were young rebels. They wanted what Michael Novak called an “open church”—and they got it. All the structures against which they inveigh today were dynamited decades ago. The churches they fear to enter have long since been sold. This document is an obvious counterfeit, an old man’s idea of what the young must want. He thinks they want what he did.
In fact, they want something different. That cassock-wearing priest is the vanguard of a generational change. If current trends hold, there will be more French priests in traditionalist orders in 2040 than in dioceses and other orders combined. As Fr. René Dinklo, head of the Dutch Dominican province, has said: “We are on the brink of far-reaching changes,” because the young want to “re-discover a number of religious practices, rituals, forms of singing and prayer ... which the older generation has set aside.” This liturgical revival is merely the visible expression of a broader embrace of tradition and dogma. Young people want the saving words of Christ, which are found in sound doctrine and by solemn worship. When they ask for bread, do not give them a stone.
But never mind what the young really want. No youthful assembly, however representative, or pious, could help a church that has to consult a focus group before it is able to preach. It should be easy to see now, after so many decades of failure, that “reading the signs of the times” means navel-gazing, while “dialogue and encounter” is a lone man’s voice echoing in empty churches. We need once again to put theology before anthropology, asking what our Lord wants before polling public opinion. Our encounter, our dialogue, is with Him.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.