Two media stories about young people in March 2018 invite reflection on where the institutional Church positions itself in relation to the increasingly divided politics and alienated societies of late modernity. The first is the “March for Our Lives” movement, when thousands of young Americans took to the streets to call for a change in that country’s gun laws after yet another mass shooting, this time at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The second is the gathering of more than three hundred young people in Rome, taking part in a preparatory meeting for the October 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.
Both the March for Our Lives and the pre-Synod youth meeting pose challenges to the Catholic hierarchy in its ability to listen to and learn from young people. Will the institutional Church once again – as so often in history – align itself with the status quo with all its violent patriarchal underpinnings as that system comes under siege, or will it rise to the challenge of speaking with and for a new generation at a time of rapidly changing values and visions?
As an American political catastrophe unfolds, the sight of a new generation of Americans challenging the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) offered a glimpse of what could become a transformed political landscape. Eighteen-year-old Cuban American Emma Gonzalez achieved iconic status when she stood on the stage in silence for six minutes during the March for Our Lives rally in Washington. This marked the time it took to kill 17 of her fellow students and staff in the Parkland shootings. Shaven-headed and sporting a Cuban flag on her jacket, this bisexual woman has become a poster girl for American youth activism. Not surprisingly, she has also become a target for conspiracy theorists and politicians of the Far Right, including some who proudly flaunt their Catholicism.
Former Pennsylvania senator and political commentator Rick Santorum was interviewed on CNN after the March for Our Lives. He defended supporters of the NRA and suggested that, instead of calling for stricter gun control laws, these “kids” would be better learning CPR and taking personal responsibility for tackling violence. Santorum epitomizes the American Catholic Right and its evangelical political alliances, as described in Antonio Spadaro’s article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” He is a defender of American military interventionism and an enthusiastic champion of the NRA. He is opposed to contraception and abortion, and he once compared homosexuality to bestiality. He is dismissive of climate change lobbyists, and has criticised Pope Francis for embracing environmental concerns.
Such conservative Catholics found support during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose concerns for doctrinal absolutism led to an exaggerated emphasis on issues of sexual and reproductive conformity as the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy. They are less representative of Catholic identity under Pope Francis. Nevertheless, nowhere has the Church flexed its political muscles so vigorously as around issues of gender, sexuality and reproductive rights. Pope Francis has been harsh in his repeated condemnation of what he, like his predecessors, refers to as “gender ideology”. A day after the March for Our Lives, in his Palm Sunday address, he urged young people to continue to speak out and to resist attempts to silence them, yet it remains true that issues of gender are taboo in the Vatican. I have no idea what Gonzalez’s religious views are, but as a bisexual woman she is far more likely to be ostracized and silenced in the Catholic Church than her compatriot Santorum. An event to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th this year organized by Voices of Faith had to be moved to a venue outside the Vatican when two speakers on the list were banned because of their support for gay rights – former Irish President Mary McAleese, and Ugandan lesbian LGBTQI activist Senfuka Joanita Warry. Both women are devout Catholics. The cardinals and Pope were invited to attend but did not even bother to reply, let alone show up.
This was in contrast to the welcome that those young people received in Rome. They were encouraged by Pope Francis to “be brave”, to speak out freely and without inhibition. The final pre-Synod report acknowledges differences among delegates from around the world, but there was a shared desire for a more inclusive, authentic and attentive Church, with more opportunities for women. The report asks the Church’s leaders to “speak in practical terms about controversial subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues, about which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.” Young Catholics seek a sense of identity rooted in Catholic values but capable of acknowledging the realities they face, at a time when they are besieged by problems such as family breakdown and divorce, issues of sexuality, the impact of social media, pornography, various forms of addiction, violence, human trafficking, corruption and poverty.
Gonzalez symbolizes a new generation of activists – young people who are passionate about non-violence, social justice, the environment and inclusivity, with an all-embracing approach to those of different genders and sexual orientations. When church leaders come down uncompromisingly against such inclusivity, it is the powerful who benefit and the voiceless who are further marginalized and alienated. If the Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment in October is truly seeking to engage with and represent young voices, it needs to take seriously the challenge that people such as Gonzalez pose to its position in fractured societies like the United States. So long as men like Santorum can proudly claim Catholic identity while women remain second class citizens in the Church and transgender, bisexual and gay Catholics are ostracized and silenced, we should not be surprised if the Church once again ends up on the wrong side of history – with the fascists and the men of violence, and against the fledgling movements of equality and freedom that seek to rise on fragile wings.