Are progressives too old-fashioned?

IT'S SOME TIME IN THE EARLY 1980s, and I'm walking with my dad and our church friends to a field outside the Athletic and Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame. Inside, Ronald Reagan is giving a speech; outside, a group of Catholic activists is protesting Reagan's support of the El Salvador death squads and our country's nuclear build-up. Songs are sung, prayers are offered, chants are shouted. Priests, nuns, and laypeople hold hands and make righteous noise. Through the fog of my adolescent mood swings, I think, "If this is what being Catholic is all about, cool!"

I didn't realize how unusual my Catholic upbringing was until I got to college and met friends who had grown up in traditional parishes. In my church we held services in a gymnasium and I took for granted that laywomen and men had a crucial role to play in weekly liturgy and church leadership. Heck, my church was so open to new ideas that Father Greg even let me preach one Sunday. I dimly remember that I used a popular song by Prince to draw a comparison between families and the family of the church. Father Greg seemed to think it was all right, God love him.

Thanks to my parents, I was reared as an unrepentantly progressive Catholic, constantly attending discussion groups and demonstrations that reflected a commitment to the social justice teachings of the church. I learned that being Catholic didn't mean loving everything the church did or stood for and that constructive disagreement was part of Jesus' call to us as Catholics.

I also noticed that as more and more of my peers grew away from organized religion, I grew closer, seeking a deeper commitment to my faith life through my career as a social worker and youth minister. I married a devout Reform Jewish woman six years ago, and our interfaith adventure constantly stimulates my growth as a Christian Catholic.

We attend Mass at a dynamic Catholic parish and belong to a wise old Reform synagogue. I also go weekly to a vital small faith group with seven incredible GenX men, and I am often the token straight guy at our local Dignity Mass. I think about Jesus a lot and pray for the ability to share with others some of the love and energy he brings to the world. And like Jesus—and like a lot of my peers—I'm as irreverent as hell.

Let's be clear: Irreverence is a different kind of energy from the energy of boomer progressive Catholics. The Holy Spirit gave baby boomers the gift and responsibility to overthrow some pretty big institutional evils, and they did their best. The many vital social justice gains that progressive Catholics have fought for in the past 40 years came from their indignation at injustice and their passionate action to combat these ills.

Many of these struggles came from a sense of moral outrage that is frankly foreign to many GenXers. We sentimentalize and resent the Woodstock generation because that's the only way we can understand it. The idea of so much harmony and moral clarity boggles our minds.

Fortunately, we too have gifts to give, and they are more powerful and long-lasting than a dot-com start-up. This generation approaches things with a pragmatic irreverence that to older progressives smacks of shallowness or moral confusion.

But pragmatism is our survival skill for making sense of the moral relativism that we grew up in. We are the first generation to have no experience of presidential leadership before Watergate. Our parents got divorced and remarried. When we couldn't deal with it—and I was one of these confused kids—they took us to therapists, not priests. Even if we weren't troubled kids, we were so infused with materialistic values that many of us grew up more connected to our things than to our communities or even families.

But as the Irish band U2 sings, many of us are "looking for the baby Jesus under the trash" of modern life. We are seekers of direct, unmediated experience, from the pilgrims who seek out the New Age shamanism of the Burning Man Festival to the thousands of us who volunteer in impoverished communities to the millions of us who download music from the Internet. We're about making our fragmented lives connect to something larger—and we are looking for it anywhere, even "under the trash."

Our irreverence, rather than mere cynicism, represents a realistic self-defense in our idealistic searches for transcendence. It also can point the way to making the changes in our world—and our church—that progressive Catholics seek.

Many older progressive Catholics are disappointed that so few young people join them in their causes. Here are my five suggestions to help bridge that generation gap:

1. Reclaim the middle
Progressive Catholicism stands in the mainstream on several key issues for GenXers, not the least of which is economic justice and labor. Despite official efforts to rein it in, the church has had a 2,000-year history of "cafeteria Catholicism," and progressive Catholics need to claim the middle from the right-wing Catholic groups that have relegated us to the margins. By highlighting these issues to young adult Catholics, progressive Catholics could increase their profile and power in the church.

2. Lose the us vs. them stuff
Progressive Catholics need to start describing themselves as the "loyal opposition." Unlike older Catholics, most young adult Catholics aren't deciding whether to work for change in the church or simply accept things as they are; they are deciding whether to stay in the church at all.

When younger Catholics ask, "If you're so unhappy with the rigidity of the church on issues like ordination of women, then why stay?" older progressive Catholics need a better response.

It's not attractive or interesting for Gen-Xers to fight the church out of the same us- vs.-them dynamic that fueled so much '60s and '70s church activism. We'll just go elsewhere.

3. Offer options, not absolutes
GenXers want options and want church change movements to reflect their option-based approach. We are interested in what works. For many of us, making a difference is a very immediate experience, found in relatively apolitical ventures like volunteering. For others, it's employing Internet, video, and fax technology to pressure the powerful or raise money for needy causes. Still others have a fondness for street activism as a tactic for change.

Previous political movements set up strong boundaries for what was "real" activism and what was not. To make progressive Catholicism vital to GenXers and to make change in the church, a multi-option approach is needed. We are big believers in "both/and" approaches and would love to bring that to the Body of Christ.

4. Bring it to the everyday
Our love of God and the church isn't an abstract concept; we all badly want to see and feel it in our day-to-day parish life, but we often feel invisible in our own parishes. Small faith groups offer GenXers the chance to bridge the gap between a support group and a larger parish community. It also gives us a weekly chance to reaffirm that "We are the church."

The seven men in my small faith group came together because, as my friend Scott says, "I can talk to people at a party about anything except God." The group is full of humor, prayer, and Jesus' irreverent spirit. We have prayed with each other through divorces and layoffs and have celebrated each other's growth as men and Catholics.

5. Help us rediscover our roots
Despite these issues, our generation still has a deep love for Catholicism's core mission. At least we think we love it. We're not always sure what it is, and, unlike our older Catholic brothers and sisters, that's OK. We're used to multiple meanings and want the church to be open to our multiple understandings of Jesus' message.

Part of what makes progressive Catholicism so inspiring to some of us are the hard battles that our "ancestors" have fought and are still fighting. We want to honor those struggles and learn from them. At a recent event of the church-reform organization Call to Action, I met an 87-year-old nun who radiates passion and love as she fights for educational equity for poor children. If I can be half as fired up at 87 as she is, I'll be truly blessed.

To expand its influence with GenX Catholics, progressive Catholicism has to step more fully into the question, "Why stay Catholic?" The majority of Catholic GenXers I know aren't sure if the Catholic Church will be a long-term home. They church shop and experiment with other religions. They may come back in a surface way to get married or raise kids, but their ties won't be as binding as those of previous generations, and will certainly not be reflected in involvement in church-reform movements.

If progressive Catholicism doesn't recognize that GenX needs to have their specific frustrations with the church—and with organized religion in general—understood, they will lose a great opportunity to call a whole generation of searching young Catholics to work for change in the church. 

Mike Kelly is a social worker, youth minister, and founder of the Center for Human Reflection in Bloomingdale, Illinois.

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