US Catholic Faith in Real Life

On young adults, faith, sex, and justice

By Megan Sweas | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

There's been a lot of news about the millennial generation and faith lately, and it seems to be a mixed bag: Are 18-28 year olds the least religious generation of Americans or is their faith just as strong as earlier generations?

It depends on what you mean to be faith, it seems.

Here's a key quote from an LA Times story about a Pew Forum report on millennials and faith: "If you think of religion primarily as a matter of whether people belong to a particular faith and attend the worship services of that faith . . . then millennials are less religious than other recent generations," said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research for the Pew Forum, a Washington-based think tank run by the nonprofit Pew Research Center. "But when it comes to measures not of belonging but of believing, they aren't so clearly less religious."

I'm skeptical about the second part of that statement. Is faith all about belief or "intellectual assent" as most of us understand the word? My favorite religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, would say no. She points out that faith and belief originally both meant action and commitment.

To believe in Jesus Christ is to commit oneself to his message, to follow his teaching. It's not enough to answer a survey question and say, "I believe in God." You have to live that statement. (And according to the Pew Forum quiz on "how millennial are you?" millennials are least likely to say that living a religious life is very important to me.)

But what does it mean to live a religious life? In evaluating a Knights of Columbus study of Catholic millennials, NCR's Kate Childs Graham says the phrase "practicing Catholic" is problematic to her. In the Catholic world, "practicing" generally means going to Mass. That certainly one component of it but is that all that is required?

Certainly the commitment to justice is one thing young Catholics latch on to when it comes to practicing their faith. On a side note, according to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, evangelical Christians are finally learning what we Catholics have known all along about justice being an essential part of faith. Perhaps this has something to do with the influence that millennials can have in evangelical circles in shaping their own faith and its youth culture.  

More difficult to reconcile are issues of dating and sex. Childs Graham points out six issues that Catholic millennials are more accepting of than practicing Catholics, and five of them are about sex and relationships: same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, divorce, and premarital sex.

As an older Catholic millennial myself (I only scored 51 percent millennial on the Pew quiz), I might suggest that our struggle, for better or worse, is with the desire to practice our faith while not condemning the culture in which we live or the friends who embrace that culture (82 percent of Catholic millennials say morals are "relative"). Meanwhile all we hear from the church is condemnation.

Thankfully, there are a few voices providing positive alternatives. Donna Freitas in Sex, lies, and hook-up culture bridges the gap between sex and justice. Check out this funny and engaging speech from Boston College professor Kerry Cronin on the rules of the first date as well. The whole talk can be found here.