April 24, 2005

Greeley Gets One Right

I don't like the smutty novels that Father Andrew Greeley writes -- not so much because they are unbecoming of a priest, but more because they are not that good. I've been amused by his tentative efforts at science fiction, and more impressed by his scholarly works in sociology. As a teen, i was especially entranced by his study of American anti-Catholicism, and wish he would write more on the subject. He was the seminary classmate of one of my former pastors, and he cancelled speaking engagements some years ago to fly to be with some of my family's old neighbors and say the funeral mass for their teenage son when he was killed in a fall while rock-climbing. In short, I think he is a good man, even if I don't agree with him in a lot of areas. However today he writes a newspaper column that, in my mind, hits the nail squarely on the head.

Greeley begins by noting that young people seem quite entranced by the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. How strange, he notes, that there is this "rock star" style enthusiasm for an old theology professor who espouses views that so many of these young people reject. Did John Paul II somehow endow future popes with this sort of charisma, an aura, that draws the young?

That possibility raises the question of whether the pope, almost by definition, enjoys an entirely new charisma -- an immediate appeal to young people. A second question follows on this day of Be Ne De To's installation as pope: Given the inexperience and shallowness of the young, how much is this charisma worth?

I submit that it is a license for a pope to teach and not an automatic guarantee of any other long-term religious impact. One heard often in Rome before the conclave that the new pope should be able to communicate with young people like the late pope. Yet, in truth, the religious attitudes and behavior of young people in every country where there has been a World Youth Day have not changed -- nor, for that matter, have the attitudes and behavior of adults changed in any of the countries John Paul visited. As collective religious rituals, these events were dramatic. They were a celebration of Catholic faith and Catholic heritage -- and as such eminently effective. But they didn't change much in ordinary human life.

My three pretty young Italian cheerleaders, unless they were different from typical Italian young women, would eventually sleep with their boyfriends before marriage and use birth control after marriage. They would see no contradiction between such behavior and enthusiasm for Benedict XVI. Does it follow that the new pope should try to teach as well as celebrate religious faith when he attends the next World Youth Day in Cologne?

An excellent question indeed, especially in a world faced with rising Islamist extremism and lukewarm Christianity that has too often surrendered to valueless secularism. What can Benedict XVI say to the assembled young people at this year's World Youth Day in Cologne (including some of my own students, traveling with a parish youth group led by one of my colleagues)? Greeley has an excellent suggestion -- start with the basics.

If he should tell them that they should reform their sexual lives, they will simply laugh. Far better that he listen to them talk about their religious faith and urge them to be patient and forgiving in all of their relationships and generous in helping others. Let sex wait for the next time or the time after. The re-evangelization of Europe cannot be done all at once. This is what I mean when I say that youthful admiration for the pope gives a license to teach -- wisely, cautiously and slowly, as any good teacher would.

Greeley is correct. Start with the basics of Christianity, and build from there. Begin with the fundamentals and build up from there. Just as one does not whip out The Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas and make it the starting point of catechesis and evangelization, one cannot begin with the nuanced and beautiful Catholic teachings on human sexuality without laying the basics. Too often since Vatican II, those basics have not been effectively taught, whether through neglect, rejection, or confusion, and have been drowned out by what then Cardinal Ratzinger called a "dictatorship of relativism" only a week ago. The Christian nature of Western society has been eroded over the course of decades, and there is no way that this pope will live to repair the damage. But the job is his to start, using the special affection this generation appears to have for the successor of St. Peter as a tool for evangelization. By beginning with the fundamentals of the faith, Benedict XVI may begin a revival of the Christian West that matches the fervor and explosive growth of Catholicism (and Christianity in general) in other parts of the world.

|| Greg, 02:11 PM || Permalink || Comments (1) || Comments

Comments on Greeley Gets One Right

Perhaps. I think Greeley mistakenly overlooks the dynamic by which young people rebel against their parents and reject their beliefs. The current population of youth have liberal, non-religiously committed parents, for the most part. How better to rebel than to follow in support of the new Pope?

|| Posted by Deb S., April 25, 2005 04:00 PM ||
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