When teaching an honors course on the Church in the Twenty-first Century, I had the students read “The Church in the Modern World” from the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In a subsequent class discussion one of the first comments from a student proposed, “This is good stuff. How come we never hear about it in Church?”
Tim Muldoon, correctly I believe, observes that young Catholics “have internalized what the council wrote about” (51). Theirs has been a church with over four decades of implementing conciliar teachings. Pre-Vatican II Catholicism exists, if at all, as a kind of idealized ancient history. Consequently current divisions within the Church make little sense, and reviving bits and pieces of that “ancient history” can garner interest.
This focus, however, constitutes only a small portion of Muldoon’s concern. After addressing the “state of the Church” the author concerns himself with five key religious themes tied to perspectives that concern young adults. He links theology to action; ecumenism to globalization; liturgy to communion; spirituality to consumerism; and morality to a “persuasive life in the world.”
Recognizing that young people experience at least a minimal engagement with the Church through service projects, Muldoon devotes a significant portion of his focus on theology to Catholic social teaching. Here he recognizes that Catholic social teaching “critiques the life of the Church itself” (66). And, in the same section he challenges the youthful divorce of religion from spirituality, only the latter making a claim on their lives, by rejecting the notion that one could be spiritual and not religious. The current distinction made by the young and the “not so young” arises from privatized American culture.
The author’s focus on social teaching leads easily into the next section with its ecumenical consideration. He recognizes the inherent suspicion of metanarratives and powerful religious institutions. He likewise appreciates the attraction of fundamentalism in the world’s religions as a “response to forces of modernity that marginalized religious belief” (89). Muldoon appreciates that young people, if they want religion, want a religion that makes a difference.
The chapter on liturgy bears the title “Liturgy: the Mystagogy of Communion.” Anyone with experience of young adults will know that the title will not engage a younger imagination. Since most of the readers will be “not so young” the title can work well though these same readers may look twice at his correlation between liturgy and sexuality. Muldoon wants to drive home the point that the liturgy “must be suffused with love” (129). While the phrase itself may seem trite, the author wants to emphasize that the liturgy must move the participants into a world not driven by consumerism. The liturgy needs to immerse people into a world where they recognize themselves as loved, bearing a capacity to love, and fashioned to live “in the face of eternity.”
Muldoon appreciates that to accomplish these things, the liturgy must speak of wonder and mystery. He proposes that the traditional forms of devotion that stand as throwbacks for older Catholics, constitute something of a discovery for many young adults. One cannot read their appropriation of the Latin Mass, Eucharistic adoration or the Rosary along the lines of the conservative-liberal divide. The author recognizes the challenge to move young people from mere liturgical spectators to participants because of their fundamental disconnect from symbolism.
Turning to contemporary spirituality, the author writes, “We must not let what is wrong with the Church distract us from what is most right about the Church; and what is most right is that it draws us into relationship with God and others” (147). Muldoon returns to his concern with the separation of spirituality and religion. Emphasizing the particular character of Christian spirituality, he contends that “modeled after Christ, then it is not about us – it is about God” (146). Thus the Christian is called to worship, to Church to be in relationship with God and others. He outlines eight perspectives on why we need Mass and recognizes that the Church needs us, members with sound a spiritual life.
Given the deep suspicion of metanarratives and powerful institutions, and given the more immediate scandal of sexual abuse, the Church needs to build a relationship of trust to reclaim any moral authority. Clear, succinct, authoritative pronouncements, even by a charismatic pontiff, find little genuine acceptance. Most go unnoticed or ignored, perspectives relevant for a world long gone. To claim any significant moral authority the Church must bring the best of its teaching into genuine dialogue with the challenges of the contemporary world. Muldoon proposes that the Church can proclaim moral truth in two ways: “first to perform the truth and speak from the authority rooted in love; and second to create the conditions that enable the maturing of conscience” (175).
Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for hope during his recent visit to the United States. His positive reception surprised not a few, perhaps even the Pope himself. But, it should come as no great surprise. The Catholic Church has a present and a future in the United States. When a younger scholar like Tim Muldoon writes convincingly about the perspectives of young adult Catholics, their questions and lived experience, the reader finds hope. This hope lies in the enthusiasm and willingness to be engaged expressed by young Catholics as well as in the listening and faithful witness of the not so young.