Monday, August 29, 2011

Religious Life and the Road Less Traveled By

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

How come young Catholic women and men do not enter religious life in the United States anymore?

Today the postulants are discussing an article that appeared three years ago in America Magazine, a weekly periodical published by the Jesuits, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the world. The author is a Jesuit priest and professor of anthropology at a Catholic college in Philadelphia. Addressing the question from a cultural perspective, he makes the following observations:

1. Young men and women know neither the mind nor the heart of their Catholic faith: its stories, its figures, or its ways of knowing truth. Their culture is erected on different stories (or no stories at all), it is peopled differently, and its avenues for knowing truth lead in only one way or to dead ends. In consequence, their culture is bereft of a religious substance, Catholic or otherwise.

2. People who enter religious life have to make a break from all familiar relationships and commitments and submit to a lengthy, somewhat complicated process of formation. In a real sense, young men and women have a lot more to lose by entering religious life today, and not only because they must let go of their cell phone, car, apartment, and bank accounts. They must also let go of their attachments to friends and family, or at least hold on to their loved ones much more loosely than before.

Arguably, the tradeoff is mostly unequal for young adults, because postulants and novices enter into new social groupings whose members are more diverse and unlike the groups they have left behind. The process of formation itself is psychologically and spiritually intense. No doubt, the fact of separation from one's previous groups of support makes the experience further challenging.

3. Religious sisters and brothers are simply not a part of young men and women's web of relationships. People will not aspire to become persons they are not in relationship with, whether priests or police officers. Young adults not only do not know people in religious life; they also do not identify with them. This is in part a consequence of a generation gap, but it is more than this. In truth, young adults, more than other cohorts, do not identify as religious at all, much less Catholic.

4. Young adults and older religious: different media, different messages. Without prejudice to either group, it is clear that young adults and older religious men and women tend to occupy different media worlds. The former soar happily in the clouds of today's electronic, digital, and social media, while the latter light their eyes on the sharp beams of yesterday's print and electronic media (now recapitulated in today's technology). Each have been formed in the wombs of different sensoriums and thus come to experience and understand the world differently. Are these groups' perceptions of reality so different as to be incompatible and preclude a life shared in common?

5. Religious persons' and young adults' experiences of gender and sexuality are mutual stumbling blocks. The cultural gaps are perhaps wider here than in any other part of human experience. Attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and values are not only divergent but also at points irreconcilable. Where one group speaks of love, the other speaks of mortal sin. When one says "Born this way," the other says "intrinsically disordered." While the avant-garde fight for equality, the rear guard fights for tradition. On one side they champion tolerance, and on the other they champion religious freedom. Those who condemn sexism and heterosexism point to the signs of the times, and those who condemn immorality point to natural law and canon law. Is East to be East and West to be West, and never the twain shall meet?

6. The color line and the poverty line run through religious institutes. In a few more years, the plurality of Catholics in the United States will be Latino and lower-class. But the Catholic Church in the United States is governed largely by middle-class whites of European descent. And the demographic and socioeconomic composition of religious orders of 2011 bears more of a resemblance to the Catholic Church of 1961.

7. Today's young adults are too maladjusted to live any kind of life, much less adopt the habits of religious life. Those who take this pessimistic view are taking into sight the pervasive sense of emptiness and meaninglessness of modern and postmodern life. They cite the train of morbid addictions and sickly anxieties to which the desperate are prone. In a world that preaches the autonomy of the individual, many young people feel hardly able to cope and totally unable to imagine the alternative of interdependent being. In a world where freedom means unlimited options and choice without restraints, people no longer know how to choose or make consequential commitments. In a world where there is no destiny and the only purpose is to make yourself who you are, there are no persons, only an assortment of ever-shifting faces.


Asked for our opinion on this article, I commented that we are living in an age when it is profoundly difficult to build a mutual community. We are a confederacy of hyperindividuals who are hyperlinked to one another as individuals, but we are less than the sum of our connections. We are, but we are not together. Unable to find enough like-minded and like-hearted partners with whom to make a living, we live apart, even from our family and friends. The heart of the world is not sacred; in fact, there is no heart from which we flow or to which we can return. We float nervously among each other in the nebula of our shared space. But there is no center of gravity, no force to pull us into orbit. Although we can go anywhere, we don't believe we can get anywhere. And we do not trust that our movement makes any real difference, so why set any course at all?

There is an existential crisis of confidence, a profound doubt that life, in its depths, has ultimate meaning, and a sneaking suspicion that any commitment to life beyond survival, any goal higher than the struggle for existence, is fancy or foolishness. Those who actively persist in the quest for a better way of life, a common way of life, that transcends life as we know it, are in the minority. That is true of every generation, and it is true in its own way for the generation now rising. It is a generation that cannot come to terms on a shared vision of life big enough for all of us to inhabit. We may walk together for a little while, but we part company early and often. Basically we believe we are going it alone. Of our pilgrim roads, each of us fancies we take "the one less traveled by." We make a path where no one has gone before and none will follow after us. Although I do believe we make the road by walking, I do not believe that the road vanishes behind us. All evidence to the contrary, the footsteps remain. And so we do not merely chance upon the places we can go.

While the decline of religious life in the United States is exacerbated by numerous intramural factors, I believe the deepest reasons lie outside the ignoble dysfunction of the Catholic Church. Religious life is the road not taken. And religious life is the road taken, again and again. But religious life is not, and never can be, the road less traveled by. Yet for many young adults, all they can see, everywhere they turn, are nearly deserted streets.

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