Thoughts on Millennials and Pope Francis and Finding Our Chapter in History

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In the libretto for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar — which hit the global scene, controversially, as the ’60s stumbled into the ’70s — a song titled “Superstar” comes right before the crucifixion.  With the insinuation of a modern perspective, the voice of Judas criticizes Jesus:

Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication

Those lines came to mind for two reasons during the closing panel of the June 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, on Pope Francis.  Kathryn Jean Lopez, of National Review, moderated a discussion of three younger Catholics on the perspective of Millennials (full video below).

The first reason I thought of the old Baby Boomer musical was that both the Boomers and the Millennials seem to have a tendency to forget the lessons of the past.  By contrast, my own Generation X, which bridged the gap between them, seems to me to have been characterized by a profound sense of the past and loss thereof.

The one-word definition of my generation would have to be “angst,” which means a vague, but powerful, sense of dread, anxiety, or remorse.  To some extent, perhaps, that feeling had to do with the constantly trumpeted threat of World War III that permeated our childhood, but more importantly, angst implies a sense that something’s missing — that something’s not right.  Angst about a broken family occurs only with some degree of awareness that there’s a different way of life that promises better outcomes.

From our perspective, the Baby Boomers charged — perhaps “pranced” would be more apropos — away from the foundations of their society with the blithe expectation that the security those foundations supported would simply remain, as the product of the natural world, not of hard-won and ephemeral social evolution.  Growing up in a fully secularized, atheistic household, when I discovered an old vinyl record of Jesus Christ Superstar, it sounded to my teenage ears like an entry bell into religion rather than a cacophonous challenge thereto.  In that regard, the musical helped to save my soul.

So early had my parents had raised me on the notion that I should decide what was true and what was not — at least when it came to religious topics — that it seemed that to choose would be folly.  If the people to whom I looked for guidance thought my inchoate intuition sufficient for the determination of cosmic Truth, clearly there could be no such thing or, at best, nobody could have authority to disagree with my own conclusions.

Yet, something nagged at me on a more visceral, profound level that there was and must be Truth.  Otherwise, there would be no basis for all of the more-quotidian truths in which I’d been raised to believe — that one should treat others kindly, study for tests, and leave a place better than its condition when found.  So, I followed my parents’ trail of skepticism backwards.

In contrast, when she introduced the three Catholic Millennials on her panel, Lopez said of their generation that they are somewhat free of the baggage of the theological battles that characterized the end of the last century.  If true, is that a good thing?

Based on their published essays and conversations with them, Millennials generally give the impression that they see themselves as emerging into a new world, with the issues of history having somehow resolved themselves, for better and worse.  We’re after the climax and in either the denouement or the preface of the sequel.

The pundit in me can’t help but wonder how much the media-and-pop-culture delirium that swept Barack Obama into the presidency contributed to this sense of things, as if we’re now nearing the eighth year A.O.

However much the national — indeed, global — fever of 2008 may have put an exclamation point on a mass sense of the position of the world, the feeling that we’re in a new chapter of history, during which the old rules cannot be assumed to apply, is more pervasive than just among young adults, and it could have historic repercussions if incorrect.  Indeed, whether we’re in an ante- or post-diluvian period has been a pervasive open-ended question throughout this series of essays and will do much to determine how well positioned the Francis papacy has been, thus far.

If the Millennial assumption is correct — if we’ve answered many of the important moral questions of the Twentieth Century and are free of the old fights — then the challenge of our era is to set the themes for the next great crescendo and triumph.  There will be time to correct the details, as we go, but we’re early in the buildup of dramatic tension, so we needn’t worry too much about them, yet.

As for the old battles (say, those over same-sex marriage or the solvency of Social Security), they’re really just lingering plot lines that serve mainly to lend coherency to the longer piece.  They’ll be resolved (or they won’t), but they’re simply an incidental connection to the past.

On the other hand, if we’re still in the period before the climax, our actions and beliefs will contribute directly to the outcome… and soon.  The old fights are still relevant, and how we go about attempting to resolve them will determine whether we’re living during a period of triumph or tragedy.  (Of course, to the Christian, triumph is ultimately assured, but every era is either an advance or a regression; that’s the story we’re currently writing.)

In brief, upcoming generations can’t be free of baggage unless the issues have been resolved, and the idea that the big theological and social questions of the past half-century have been resolved is a bit too much of a concession to the relativism of our times.

The second reason those lines from Jesus Christ Superstar came to mind as the Millennials spoke to a roomful of older conference attendees was the line about communication.  Speaking first, Kerry Weber, managing editor of America magazine, mentioned that Millennials understand the speed of technological change, having heard both the sounds of 56k modems and the voice of Apple’s talking built-in guide Siri.

A GenXer can’t help but chuckle at that comparison as the marker of major technological change.  In our youth, the Internet didn’t even exist; every computer was an isolated island to which new information had to be transported by means of floppy disks.  (Yes, back then, we spelled it with a “k.”)  Portable phones weren’t just big, clunky, text-free, and non-smart; they were extremely rare.

An analogous example would be proclaiming the effects of power steering on a generation when the prior one had, for the most part, grown up with no cars at all.  Again, we find the sense of the Millennials’ new world: The prior generation straddled a true technological revolution; the Millennials’ experience has mainly been with acceleration.

Revolution is climactic, and society’s concern, leading up to it, ought to be its character, including a fair assessment of what we hope to accomplish and what we can afford to leave behind.  With acceleration, the fundamental decisions have been made, and society’s concern is velocity — direction and speed, both of which can only be corrected, not reversed in the absence of another revolution.  For example, the amount of emphasis that we put on “diversity” may justify tweaks in our social order, but the underlying premise is considered to be firmly settled: Excluding any voices (except those of groups that used to be dominant, naturally) is undesirable.

The panelists’ most Catholic insights were firmly within a perspective concerned with velocity.  Christopher White, associate director of Catholic Voices USA, spoke of finding value in his phone conversations with an elderly acquaintance.  For her part, Elise Italiano, director of communications for the Arlington Diocese, spoke of the importance of spending “real, enfleshed time” with others so that, as communication technology rockets us away from humanity’s prior experience, we don’t lose personal connections.

That insight exposes how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s line about Israel 4 B.C.’s having no mass communication is just a rhyming exercise in missing the point.  Baby Boomers’ progressive expedience was profoundly incorrect.  As the rock star Sting, another influence on GenXers, put it: “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.”

As with any technology, the noun in “communication technology” facilitates the adjective.  However, drawing people toward each other and toward God is not necessarily amenable to economies of scale.  The obstacles to faith are too unique and personal.  Moreover, to the extent that people can be moved en masse, they can be moved in the wrong direction.  Consider, again, the madness of 2008.

None should doubt that, as a pastoral matter, Pope Francis understands both of these principles — the unique needs of individuals and the capacity for large-scale movements to go wrong.  But he’s not merely a pastor, now; he’s a global figure.

  • If Pope Francis is too prone to speaking off the cuff and from his own life experience, as Anna Bonta Moreland suggested;
  • If the circumstances of the world, as it exists, can have a profound effect on the interaction of technology, culture, government, and religion, as suggested during the panel on interreligious perspectives;
  • If, as Ross Douthat worried, the world is no longer such that conflicting visions of Catholicism — of human society — can inhabit the same planet while being slowly resolved across distances;
  • If righteous men and women can miss the possibility that their messages directed toward one group will have adverse effects on another group that understands them differently, a thought which was like rumbling thunder in the background of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s speech;
  • If the lines linking subsidiarity and solidarity, as well as the individual and the government, are as prone to blurring as emerged when John Carr previewed the Pope’s visit to America;
  • If the “false conversions” about which Fr. Dwight Longenecker warned can be translated globally and in terms of political topics;
  • If Pope Francis’s rhetorical style inadvertently endorses fallacious political positions as a mechanism to “arrest attention” for theological topics, as R.R. Reno’s talk implied;
  • If, contrary to Fr. Roger Landry’s advice for our own exercises in evangelization activities, the Pope is not really meeting those who need evangelization in Western societies where they are;
  • If, as Kenneth Colston quoted a prior pope speaking about St. Francis, “the world was made not only for Franciscans”;
  • If Pope Francis is operating according to flawed economic ideas, or is not sufficiently concerned with whether or not he is doing so;
  • And if he sees the world as progressing with some velocity away from some calamity and resolution in the recent past…

… then whether or not he is correct in his views about politics, culture, economics, the environment, and any other area of prudential consideration related to his message and his image in the world matters a great deal to the world.  And frankly, I’m not convinced that his non-theological views are correct or that he understands the repercussions of his having them wrong.

To the extent that his message resonates with Millennials, therefore, two powerful forces — the Vicar of Christ and the generation preparing for its increasing role determining the direction of Western Civilization — may be accelerating the world away from a calamity that never happened and toward one that we cannot yet fully understand, but that we would be able to anticipate if we looked with the clarity of people who comprehend where they are in history.

 

Featured image, from left to right: Kathryn Jean Lopez, Kerry Weber, Christopher White, and Elise Italiano.



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