Last October’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops produced remarkable news coverage and commentary from every corner of the church and the world, but less attention was paid to a most important group: Millennials, those ages 18-29, who are the Catholic Church’s future. With recent data confirming this generational cohort’s remarkable support for LGBT people, what is it that Millennials seek when it comes to LGBT issues in the Catholic Church?
Pew Research Center reports that 85% of Millennial Catholics in the US approve of homosexuality and 75% support marriage equality, even if fairly few believe the Catholic Church will recognize it in their lifetime.These are strong numbers that are likely to grow as LGBT equality and cultural acceptance expands.
Some consider that because Millennials disagree so strongly with institutional religion’s opposition to LGBT equality that it means they want nothing to do with faith, either rejecting churches outright or preferring to be “spiritual, but not religious.” There is, however, a different portrayal that seems more accurate, summarized by Christopher Hale in The National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘I find that most millennials are intelligent, open-minded people searching for a way forward in life…What we need to see more than anything is a church that is willing to listen and a church that’s willing to engage…We are growing up in different times, and we still need a church to minister to us. What once was alternative is now normal. ‘ “
In reporting on the Pew study noted above, a National Catholic Reporter news article quoted Bill D’Antonio, a sociologist who studies Catholic opinion, who said these Millennials “represent the tail end of a sweeping attitudinal shift that has taken place within American Catholicism over the past quarter-century, one from obedience and compliance with authority as the norm to an overriding sense of ‘conscience’ as the primary marker of Catholic identity in American life.”
Yet, this shift again cannot be reduced to a disregard for church’s structure. Theologians working with Millennial students affirm that young people are less concerned about finding answers and, instead, are more interested in dialogue that will develop new understandings. Furthermore, Millennials expect their voices and experiences, and those of marginalized communities, should be included in the church’s ongoing conversations. A news article cited St. Louis University professor Julie Hanlon Rubio, who said:
” ‘My students have no respect for exclusion’…And it’s important that they stop feeling excluded, she says, ‘because social justice doesn’t just mean Dorothy Day. It’s about how you live in your family life, how you approach where you live, how you spend your money.’ “
Going forward, how might this data and these new understandings of Millennial Catholics impact conversations around LGBT and other issues?
One suggestion is that Millennials are leaving Catholicism–and will continue to leave in greater numbers–because of the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to LGBT equality. Scott Alessi writes in US Catholic:
” ‘The Catholic Church may need to ask itself the same question. It isn’t a question of whether or not to change the church’s position, but how can it change the way it talks about same-sex relationships with a generation that clearly sees things differently?
“The views of younger generations are, at least for the time being, clearly moving away from the views of the church on this topic. And if the church doesn’t want to alienate those Catholics, it needs to find a way to engage them in a serious discussion of those dissenting viewpoints–or risk losing them entirely.”
Zach Stafford writing in The Guardian about the recent synod said that if Catholic leaders maintain a harsh and unbending stance on LGBT inclusion, the Church will lose the next generation:
“From my conversations over the past week, it became quite clear that the Church needs to do something, on the ground and not just at St Peter’s, about closing the oceanic gap on so many modern issues between its leadership and its congregation. The alternative is something like in Germany, where attendance is in the single-digits and fading, as LGBT rights and other progressive issues like capital punishment and immigration continue to make great strides with the Church….right now not too many people across the actual ocean are listening to much of what the Vatican has to say.”
Certainly, Millennials have left because they or someone they love has not been affirmed, or they tire of the US bishops’ campaign against LGBT equality. Data from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests about one-third of people raised Catholic left the church over LGBT issues. But, Chris Stedman at Religion News Service noted some important qualifications about this trend. First, Millennials like other Americans underestimate just how supportive Catholics in the US are of LGBT equality. Stedman writes:
“This suggests that we need to do a better job of talking about religion in a way that reflects the diverse views of religious people, not just the most extreme points of view. Ours is a conflict-driven culture that privileges the most extreme perspectives, and we tend to associate groups with their most outrageous or hateful members. So let’s make an effort to lift up diverse religious voices that can paint a more accurate picture.”
Second, Millennials are leaving religion generally, and the Catholic community in particular, over many other issues. Stedman calls it “a time of religious fluidity” where Millennials are free to walk away from religious traditions without consequence. Third, Millennials are leaving churches but there is little data on what is filling this emptiness, whether it is other communities/traditions, a “spiritual, but not religious” practice, or something entirely different.
In my own reading and studying, I spend a good amount of time wondering about Millennials and just what to make of my generation when it comes to religion, specifically Catholicism. I do not claim to know entirely what Millennial Catholics want from the church or what can reverse the declining attendance and the increasing distrust, though I certainly have some ideas. For one thing, Millennials want experiences that combine faith with action, such as high school senior Zeena Rivera described:
“A strong sense of necessity—and a stronger sense of shame—brought me marching at the front of the [Pride] parade with my church—a Catholic church. This group was marching, though, because, somehow, we all collectively enjoyed marching, cheering anomalies in both our religious and queer lives, and, for some reason, that felt good…
“Pride was on a Sunday this year, so as the parade ended, fully decked out in rainbow face paint and all, my family and I headed off to Mass. With the audacity to appear before the Lord’s Table in the rainbow painted mess I must have been, I couldn’t help but smile.”
More than anything, I think Millennial Catholics want churches that are flourishing communities helping people to live faithfully and justly as disciples of Christ. Welcome and inclusion, as well as just church structures, are essential elements — but they are only starting points. Catholic communities must be acutely attentive to promote LGBT justice and welcome.
In short, Millennial Catholics, in keeping with principles shared by all Millennials, want a church that acts a lot like October’s synod — messy, sometimes conflicted, definitely tweeting, listening to all perspectives, and trying to offer a sense of life, joy, and hope. The coming year’s discussions and deliberations in the universal church would do well to pay attention to Millennials for to them is the church’s future entrusted.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry