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Lights! Sound! Action!


Gen Y and the Church of choice

Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Photo by Lee Pellegrini

By Paul Griffiths

It is a large and troubling question how the Catholic faith will be handed on in the early years of this third millennium in the United States. For Catholicism is now, as always, only a generation away from extinction; and to the pessimistically and apocalyptically inclined (like me) there seems little evidence that the Church has the resources or the will to manage the difficult task of perpetuating itself.

We live now as people outside Eden have always lived, as eager catechumens of a culture that trains us with exquisite refinement to kill, to rape, to torture, to dominate, to control—and, above all, to obscure from ourselves that this is what we are doing. Since the cherubim's flaming sword barred the way back into the Garden, there has been no age when this was not so, no time of simplicity and peace to which we should look back with nostalgia and longing.

It's a characteristic error of conservatives (ecclesiastical and political) to think that there ever was such a time, that the story we should tell is one of declension. The opposite and equal error of liberals is to think that the right story is one of progress, ever upward from the night of savagery into the day of democracy's civil society. In fact, human culture's catechumenate—its ambient influence—has always been largely malign. The task is not to show how much better or worse things are now than they once were, but instead to attend carefully to the particular malignities of our own times. That will give us quite enough to do.

In our world, culture educates desire. The newborn sucks as the nipple touches its lips; its eyes move to light. Everything else is taught and learned: Here you fall to your knees, there you curse, this is disgusting, that is beautiful.

The Church itself is a culture and so has its own pedagogy of desire. This pedagogy begins with death: the drowning of the old Adam and the old Eve in the baptismal bath; the renunciation of the blandishments of the world, the flesh, and the Devil (who is a shorthand for pagan culture's pedagogy); the overwriting of all natural identities—gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on—by Christ's script, the script of the cross.

The old identities remain, of course, but as a palimpsest; to the Christian, they are no longer determinative or exhaustive. Christians are Christian first and everything else (American, male, female, old, young, gay, straight) a very long way second.

All this means that the Church is not only a culture with its own pedagogy, but also and necessarily a counter-culture with a counter-pedagogy. What the Church teaches its catechumens to desire assumes that the weight and pattern of their already-formed desires need to be transfigured at the least, and often simply killed. And so the Church must always strive to keep the catechumenate of the larger culture closely in view. This is not as easy as it seems, because the enveloping culture's catechesis is, now as always, in flux and difficult to pin down.

GENERATION Y, born more or less between 1978 and 1991, will be the next generation to carry the faith. This generation includes most of today's high school and college students and a few of its graduate students, professionals-in-training, and young adults already in the workplace. Relatively few of its members are yet married or deeply enmeshed in child-raising; almost none yet occupy positions of leadership in the Church or world. None have lived through a major war or a serious economic depression—though many are poor and the poor among them trend disproportionately toward military service. Many are recent immigrants or the children of such. Few of them can recall the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and some can't recall Bill Clinton. The actions of September 11, 2001, mark for most of them the first event of international significance to have made a strong impression.

I will say up front that I've undertaken no quantitative studies of this generation and have no training in sociology. What I know or am willing to speculate about, with regard to Generation Y's formation, is drawn from four years' recent experience (2000–04) teaching at a large multi-ethnic and multi-religious state university in the American Midwest, and from watching my own children grow.

Generation Y swims in a powerful visual and aural environment like fish in a warm, salt sea. Public space is almost always saturated with background music; moments without conversation, one's own or someone else's, have become ever rarer (most of Generation Y does not recall a world without the cell phone); and when neither background music nor conversation are easily available, the personal music of the Discman or the iPod will at once be resorted to.

An illustration: If I arrive for class five minutes early, the students already in the room will be doing one or several of the following: sleeping; reading in preparation for my class or some other; listening to music via earphones; talking on a cell phone; or chatting with someone sitting nearby. If reading is being done, it's almost always together with the cell phone or the music. Sleeping, in fact, is the only activity that usually excludes the others—though I have seen students apparently asleep with music playing through their earphones.

Deliberate visual stimuli in the lives of Generation Y are almost as pervasive. At my university, every dorm has large-screen TV lounges; every dorm room has multiple screens—often two computers and at least one TV for a small room shared between two people, not to mention cell phones that send and receive images.

Generation Y's members are not creatures of the written word. Few of them have the ability or the desire to read with attention to subtlety and nuance; fewer still have the patience for lengthy, complex argument. Faced with prose from Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Henry James, Don DeLillo, or even Dave Eggers, they will for the most part construe the sentences accurately; but they will have little idea of the shape of a lengthy passage's argument as a whole, and will as often as not be unable to say what the author has argued. Text fragments—sentences, paragraphs—dance before them as discrete entities. Weaving them together into a whole, keeping one fragment in mind as key to the meaning of another many pages later is not a skill widely possessed by this generation. I often teach Augustine's Confessions. At least three-quarters of an average class finds it impossible without very extensive guidance to read a book of the Confessions and offer a written summary of its content. This is not because they can't read the sentences; it's because they can't keep the beginning in mind long enough to see its relevance to the end, and because they find Augustine's rhetoric a dazzling bafflement.

By contrast, images and sounds generate responses that seem effortless. If my students are representative, a very small percentage of Generation Y reads for pleasure—and I mean reads anything at all. But probably more than 90 percent consume images and music recreationally, and have done so since early childhood.

I share these observations for what they suggest about how Generation Y learns and studies, which should be of great interest to the Church's catechists and liturgists. The Church, certainly, has (or should have) no particular stake in encouraging literacy: The vast majority of Catholics have always been illiterate. But the impressions I've accumulated raise questions about the Church's catechetical practice.

The Church does have an important stake in the comprehension of and response to the scriptural word read aloud in the liturgy. The liturgy puts proclamation of scripture at its center. But to many members of Generation Y, formed by a culture in which the paradigm for oral communication is the sound bite, the words of St. Paul or St. John read from the ambo flow over and around them as so much ambient vibration. (It must also be said that the way in which scripture is read aloud in most Catholic churches does not help: We read as though we have no expectation of comprehension; we certainly provide little or no silence in which to think about it.)

I have no immediate recommendation to make about this, other than to note that the ability to comprehend complex prose by ear is connected in intricate ways with the capacity to recall what one has heard. And this capacity lately has received almost no training in the larger culture, and is effectively not practiced by the Church. Not many in Generation Y can easily and without book recite the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei (and I don't mean in Latin). Our culture has lost sight of the importance of literary memory.

As we make the transition from an earlier culture in which book-literacy is highly valued to one in which it is not, we need badly to recover the techniques developed for other times and places in which literacy was largely absent. A strong case can be made, for example, to increase—to maximize, even—the presence of icons in our churches. Stained glass images of the saints, plaster statues of the Virgin, bloody images of Christ on the cross—the pre-verbal child in church is instructed in complex ways by gazing at such icons of faith, and so would be the sensitized members of Generation Y. And yet, since 1970 the design of church buildings in the United States has moved in the opposite direction, stripping away visual stimuli and visual complexity.

MUCH HAS been written about social branding in today's culture. Consumer goods are branded so that buyers will recognize and identify with them; social brands mark people as being of a certain sort, but also and at the same time, as being members of a community with others of like sort. In varying ways, Generation Y has been taught by advertisers, entertainers, and educators that branding is important.

A company called Quotable Mugs offers a channel into the contemporary catechesis. The company markets a line of coffee mugs branded with inspirational slogans. One of these is: "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." The company also markets a mug that would seem to endorse the opposite. "Be who you are," its slogan reads, promoting discovery over invention. The purposes of Quotable Mugs, it is fair to assume, are entirely commercial: What the company thinks will sell is what it makes and markets. Intellectual consistency is not the point. But these two mugs may nonetheless serve as emblematic of important facts about Generation Y's sense of itself: that this generation is fundamentally and essentially interested in identity; that its members want to signal identity by branding; and that they are equally at home with tropes of discovery and tropes of invention in undertaking the branding process.

From grade school, the members of Generation Y have been told by teachers, entertainers, even the U.S. Army, that they can be anything they want to be. The claim is outrageously false, though no doubt well-enough intentioned: The truth is that each of us is finite, limited, damaged, and constrained by many factors; we cannot be absolutely anything we wish to be. It is a mark of adult and reasonable humanity to acknowledge this, and it is a catechetical malformation of our young people to tell them otherwise. Nonetheless, Generation Y has heard and internalized the message that what they've been given (ethnicity, social class, gender, physical appearance, tastes) can be remade. Where you end need not be where you began.

The remaking can be mild. Perhaps you're a Vespa-riding vegetarian Goth with multiple body piercings; without too much trouble, you can jettison that image and become a White Sox-loving beer-swiller who drives a pickup truck. The remaking also can be drastic—involving surgery, transplants, drugs, and genetic manipulation. Perhaps you're a woman; you can become a man. Perhaps you're five feet three and 200 pounds; liposuction and shin implants can do wonders.

The shining idea of becoming anything you want to be creates a burden that weighs heavily upon Generation Y. It is the burden of an excess of possibility: too many glittering images of what one might become. Do I transform my body? Should I try on the role of an aspiring banker (gripping the Financial Times as I drink my latte), or of the retro campus Maoist? Our culture's script proffers so many roles, so many possible identities; they proliferate as fast as weight-loss products on supermarket shelves. Each has its means of public visibility, representation, and support—its 'zines, sartorial style, foods, chat rooms, argot.

But the tropes of plastic possibility are intertwined with another set of tropes of a broadly essentialist sort. These have to do with discovery, with finding the glassy, jewel-like essence that defines your true identity—and the second of my Quotable Mugs slogans. So, for example, I hear students say, "I was 14 when I realized I was gay," or, "I knew that I was an artist when I first picked up a pencil." Transformations as radical as any envisaged by the advocates of imagination can be grounded in this essentialist rhetoric. It's become a commonplace of the sex-change memoir, for example, that the woman-who-was-once-a-man knew from an early age that her masculinity was not what she really was. And talk of discovering oneself as a member of one ethnic group or another has become commonplace.

WHO FORMS desire in this way? The answer is, of course, almost everyone: Generation Y talks to itself in these terms, and there is constant reinforcement from mass media entertainment, as there is also from the forces of the market and from the education industry.

Indeed, by the time students arrive at higher education (those who make it that far) they find a proliferation of relatively new academic programs offering a pedagogy of branding: Catholic Studies, Jewish Studies, Native American Studies, African-American Studies, Latino and Latin-American Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and so on. None of these programs are closed to individuals of other persuasions, of course; but all tend to speak more to those who are or plan to be members of the group.

Such programs contribute to the pervasive sense that the brand is indeed what counts, even though this is scarcely their professed purpose. And the impression is only reinforced by the pressure that all secular universities (and to an increasing extent religiously affiliated ones as well) find themselves under to provide extracurricular nurture and support for students who've already branded themselves. We find offices for gay, lesbian, and transgendered students; the pastoral presence of a range of churches and faiths; and the formation of ethnic- and nation-specific student associations, usually with active university support.

More important in branding than the pedagogy of the educational establishment, however, is the pedagogy of the market. Capitalism—the market economy—has moved on from its early phase, which was constituted by the development of mass production, the concentration of population in cities, and the fostering of mass markets for standardized products (the Model T, for example). We have entered now what's often called "late capitalism," and in that form the increasing segmentation of markets is essential to the stimulus of desire. Success in marketing entails the creation, de novo, of a new demographic (or cultural) niche, to which all the markers of identity can be sold. The considerable forces of the advertising industry are brought to bear upon the nurturing of new identities. The nurture in question involves, of course, the feeding with product of those captured by the brand. Within Generation Y, desire runs in these channels, strong and deep.

The apparent contradiction between the two Quotable Mugs slogans is resolved by the deeper grammar of market segmentation and the identity-construction that goes with it. The trope of discovery and the trope of invention are both devices in the service of branding.

So far, then, we have Generation Y floating in an aural and visual flood, catechized by the late-capitalist market into seeking and finding identity in increasingly segmented communities of taste. Such communities are Lockean churches, in the sense conveyed by John Locke, in his 1685 Letter Concerning Toleration. There Locke defined a church as "a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls." This is a community of taste and choice, constructed by a particular catechesis of desire. In all important structural respects, it is like the communities of people who mourn the passing of the jam band Phish or who read qvMagazine (a 'zine for gay Latinos) or who go to monster-truck demolition derbies.

If this diagnosis is right, it follows at once that Generation Y Catholics will understand their Catholicism in this Lockean way. And the proliferation of cultural studies programs at universities fits perfectly into this profile: Catholic Studies is there in just the same way and for just the same reasons that (e.g.) African-American Studies or Asian-American Studies is there—which is to say as the intellectual arm of a Lockean church.

But what does it mean to understand the Catholic Church as a Lockean church, and is this a problem for the Catholic Church's handing on of its tradition? The central point, I think, is that inhabitants of Lockean churches will typically understand their community and their membership by subsuming the order of being into the order of knowing. They will be aware, inchoately, that they have come to be Catholic (or gay or straight or Republican) by means of a catechesis of desire; they will be aware, too, that this could have been otherwise—that if local variables had been different their desires would have been formed differently and the Lockean churches in which they would then have found themselves would be other than the ones to which they now belong. These are claims in the order of knowing: They say something about how habit and identity are formed, including the habits of assent required by membership in any Lockean church. But they are not yet claims in the order of being—about what a particular Lockean church actually is. For late-capitalist Lockeans, however, claims in the order of being are not separate from those in the order of knowing. If membership in a community requires a catechesis of desire; if, too, that catechesis is contingent (it could have been otherwise) and not coerced, then it follows that the community in question is just a community of taste, preference, and predilection. It makes no sense from a late-capitalist, Lockean perspective to identify a community so joined as a community of truth, to say of it that it is the community that preserves and transmits more fully than any other the truth about human beings and the world. The members of Generation Y find it difficult to understand that anyone can seriously make such claims.

An example: I often teach selections from Aquinas's questions on virtue in the Summa. Some students will make a serious attempt to understand what he's arguing, and some will succeed. But almost always, and often with the force of a troubling epiphany, there will be a moment in class when some (usually a brighter) student will raise his or her hand and say (something like): "But doesn't that mean he thinks that everyone should think like he does about these virtues?" Well, yes, it does: He thinks it's the truth.

To most members of Generation Y, the community of Aristotelian-Thomist virtue theorists (they wouldn't put it like that, of course) might reasonably have its slogans and its causes. But they wouldn't think to say it teaches the truth, simpliciter. This reaction is neither coherent nor (usually) thought through. It is just what someone formed by the catechesis of a late-capitalist culture is almost inevitably going to think.

The grammar of our larger culture today does not permit the Catholic Church's view of itself the dignity of being a well-formed utterance. Teaching that view as truth provides what I take to be the deepest level of challenge for the Church's transmission of itself here in the first century of the third millennium.

Unless the Church finds an effective way to combat the formation given to Generation Y by today's late-capitalist culture, it will increasingly find itself understood and treated by Catholics as a consumer choice of essentially the same kind as choices about cuisine, clothes, and cars.


Paul Griffiths holds the Schmitt Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His essay is drawn from a paper he presented on September 18 at "Handing on the Faith," a conference sponsored by Boston College's Church in the 21st Century initiative.


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