First there was the Met Gala, now the toe-curling footage of bishops in abito piano grooving to disco music at the end of the youth synod. (Even the way the room was rigged out was so 1970s: it looked as if Dave Allen had decided to set one of his spoof clergy sketches in the Top of the Pops studio.) Every time the Vatican tries to get hip with contemporary culture I find myself reaching for my rosary.
It was both rather pitiful and revealing. Like the synod on the family, this one ends by raising more questions than it answered, and the indelibly embarrassing sight of bishops trying out their funky moves embodies a serious hermeneutical question: what is it about youth culture which is now deemed so alien to our religion that they feel the need to pay homage to its hierarchy of values if they are to have any credibility with its adherents?
If one wanted to be mischievous, it could be argued that a synod on youth is already a tacit admission of failure, since the purpose of the Second Vatican Council’s newfound openness to the world was to discover a language in which to transmit the truths of revelation to contemporary humanity and thus to transform it with the Gospel.
Fifty years on, we now need to find other new languages for young people, for gay people. The great aggiornamento seems to have revealed in some quarters the painful, self-defeating truth that we now no longer believe in the power of religion to shape culture. But surely our religion derives from the Logos, revealing not only God, but also man to man.
Does the fullness of humanity revealed in Jesus Christ really no longer speak equally to the same desire for the Divine in all human culture? And what does it say about the state of family life, liturgy and catechesis in the West if there is another culture, specific to youth, which is somehow so distinct or separate from the rest of the Church that it needs to be addressed as though it were the determinative factor in the way young people receive or reject the Gospel?
One example of such a mindset would be the disco. Unless you yourself have interiorised the great cultural and human value in the discotheque and its power to enhance the image of the risen Christ in the human person, what are you hoping to achieve by having a disco in the Vatican?
This touches on something more than discos. This is the same synod that wanted to address the issues of so-called LGBT persons, again as though this designation contained some other distinct truth about humanity vis-à-vis the reception of the revelation of Jesus Christ. We quickly descend from the prophetic to the pathetic when Church documents are full of sociological reflections and downplay the Church’s divine mandate to renew all things in Christ.
As the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, might express it, any elements in a putatively distinctive youth culture, or an LGBT culture, which do not recognise that there is in all humanity the same hardwiring for union with God – the same level playing field when it comes to the reception of God’s invitation in Jesus Christ – are not distinctive strengths to be embraced, but signs of that culture’s inadequacy, because “the exclusion of what is different is contrary to human nature”.
To make difference your identity by hoping for some kind of adaptive version of the faith for your particular culture is actually a projection of that very alienation which is claimed as the obstacle to embracing the faith of the Church. The risen Jesus sent his disciples to make disciples of all nations, to teach them all he had commanded. This is not the imposition of an ideology which stifles culture or authentic humanity. Nor is it about a desire to recruit, but rather the imperative to share the gift of salvation entrusted to the Church as the right of all people.
Platitudes seeking to affirm the youth for being young, such as, “Can we change things? Yes, we can.” (hat-tip to Bob the Builder) and “The Holy Spirit is forever young” will change little, I fear. I hope what will emerge more powerfully from the synod is a call to go well beyond the appearances of the visible and sociological norms of the world regarding what it means to be young; a call to embrace an identity that derives from above as a divine gift regardless of age or state; and a radical trust in that love which calls us to transcend the narrow limits of our own age and culture.
This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here