I have seen a long procession of posts praising the events of World Youth Day this year. One of the most interesting was by Ben Akers in First Things who compared the gathering in Madrid with the riots in London. In the same way that the riots demonstrated the moral turpitude of many young people, so, Akers argues, Madrid can be taken as an emblematic event:
A very different kind of spirit was on display in Spain: the Holy Spirit of God, which offers an opposite vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope. Let us pray that this new generation of youth gathered in Madrid will stand up in faith against what Yeats would have called the “blood-dimmed tide” by witnessing to the liberating power of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
Noble sentiments indeed. But what is this new generation really like?
I made the case yesterday that Liberal Catholicism does not reproduce itself, but reflecting on this issue I think it needs some nuance. As a rule of thumb, it is probably true, especially when it comes to matters such as vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That said, our ambient culture is so shot through with moral individualism and intellectual suspicion of doctrine that it would be no surprise to find beyond an inner circle of faithful Catholics a wider circle of those who mostly respect what the Church says (but not completely), and beyond them an outer circle which is either not sure what it thinks or positively rejects Church teaching.
Take in evidence of these nuances this vox pop video from World Youth Day made by Figaro International. It starts out in Spanish with French subtitles but most of the youth - who comes from various countries - speak in English.
Initially, they are asked what it is like being young and Catholic today. Generally, they answer that it is difficult because people don't understand (this is notably the case for the Spaniards; logically, because anticlericalism is stronger in Catholic countries), but it is not too bad. One even says it is very beautiful.
Then they are asked if they are excited about the visit of the pope to Madrid. Of course they are, with one exception who says she is curious!
Finally, we come to the big question: do you agree with the Church on moral issues that affect society. Here is the break down of views:
Of course there are things I don't agree with, notably condoms. The Church doesn't allow sex outside marriage but you have to accept that things have changed. We aren't 17 or 18 all our lives.
What surprises me is that the Church forbids abortion completely. For me, it depends on the context. You can abort if there has been a rape or if the pregnancy is not wanted.
We do not live in the same period as our parents. No, the Church shouldn't change its principles but it could sometimes be more flexible. But it's not good to be very flexible.
I agree with the Church on abortion and euthanasia. As for sexuality? I don't know.
I don't follow everything the Church says because I don't agree with everything. On the topic of condoms, for example, that's for everyone to decide for themselves. It's very important these days to use condoms. It's not about sex, it's about health.
We have to be very careful here. This is just a random sampling of views and we cannot be certain of how representative it is. That said, the picture of Catholicism coming from this sample is far from a healthy one.
One young person alone (from Serbia) sounds like she might be a 'Benedictine' Catholic, i.e. one who actually shares the same faith as the pope.
Another one (from Poland) is quite firm on some controversial issues, but isn't sure about sexuality. This is hardly surprising in the current climate, but this is not the Catholicism of Benedict XVI; it is most certainly not the sexual ethics which were central to John Paul II's teachings.
Finally our two young people from Brasil and Spain are fascinating. They profess to be Catholics and to be excited about the pope's visit. The Spaniards, however, have rather broad views about what they ought to be allowed to do. The girl doesn't want to obey the Church's teachings on sex, while her friend, logically, sounds like he would happily see her abort any unwanted pregnancy that came from her sexual activities. Good luck to them both. The two Brasilians are interesting not so much because they question the ban on condoms but because, as one of them says, one must be allowed to decide for oneself. Which makes me wonder how an individualist act of faith might go:
O my God, I believe in you and all I think I agree with. Because I have said it, and that is what counts.
Eh alors? Well, first, we have to pray for all young people, especially for those who have not been catechised well and those who are struggling with the many problems which our current state of ultramodernity throws at them. We have to ensure we are also setting the example. But I think above all we need a colder, more clinical, more realistic view of what these million or so young folk were doing in Madrid a couple of weeks ago.
Of course, we ought to be impressed by how Pope Benedict leads them in prayer. It's the first time some of them have ever learnt to listen in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. But is Akers right that in Madrid we have seen a 'vision of a world transformed by love, joy, and hope?' I think not.
Rather, in these few moments of vox pop, I think we are seeing something more realistic about the face of this mass Catholicism. It is very easy for people to get carried away with how wonderful Madrid WYD actually was. But how real was it in terms of Catholic belief? How real and solid is the faith that underpins it? How searching is the reform that young people feel called to? One Pole told me that the difference between a JPII WYD and a BXVI WYD (both of which she had attended) was that at the former the crowd went crazy about the pope but didn't really listen; at the latter, they went mad for the pope but they sat and actually listened to him. But is this true? Frankly, we might not be able to tell for many years yet to come.
I'm sorry to rain on this parade, but I do think some people have got carried away with it all and ought to be reminded of something. We are not Catholic by being excited about the pope or by declaring ourselves Catholic. Such a mentality is all too redolent of the views expressed in Mark Dowd's documentary which I wrote about here. We are Catholic by sharing in the faith of the Church, though the Sacraments and by submission to the successors of the apostles in union with Peter. That's the genuine article. Accept no substitutes, say I!
There has been talk of a New Evangelisation for the peoples of Europe and the West for quite some time. By this measure, they remain in desperate need of it.