Faith of our Fathers: Radicalising our Youth

The New York Post just ran a fascinating article, “How Trump Can End Brainwashing on US Campuses“, outlining how students are deliberately politicised to operate as tools of the political left. The author, F. H. Buckley, shows how our youth are being radicalised for particular causes, being systematically taught to be belligerent in the face of inherited social values, the standard view of history, and tradition in general. Buckley sites a newly released study by the National Association of Scholars which shows that the modern civics classroom “[seeks] to repurpose higher education away from the study of Western institutions, and even away from scholarship in general, in order to make little left-wing community organizers of our students.”

While the state of higher education in America is a topic worth discussing in other fora, it was the latter portion of the article that raised red flags for this Catholic who is lamenting the status of tradition in her own Church. Consider the core principle of the radicals, who prioritise “civic engagement” as a method of discussing every topic, allowing the students to weigh in on the value of every professor, the institution’s structures, and how money is spent on extracurricular activities. Students—ostensibly those who come to the academy to be taught what they don’t know—begin by sitting in judgement on the core principles of academia itself.

Since my primary concern is the Church, and the status of her catechesis, the alarm bells that this article set off were specifically related to what I have read about the next Synod. Crux explains that a “Synod on Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment” is scheduled to take place in Rome, 2018.

According to a Vatican statement, the chosen topic, an “expression of the Church’s pastoral concern for the young,” is in continuity with the findings of the two-fold synod on the family and Francis’s post-synodal document Amoris Laetitia.

As if that isn’t troubling enough—since the muddying of the waters caused by that very document is causing grievous confusion over the nature of the Sacraments, we are reminded:

As was the case for his predecessors, youth have been a key concern for Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate. He’s made it a point to ensure that most of his foreign trips include an encounter with the youth, which almost always becomes an off-the-cuff interaction between the young and the pope, who leaves his remarks aside and grabs pen and paper, quipping that “speeches are boring” and talking to them one-on-one.

“Swim against the tide,” he told them in his message for World Youth Day 2015. “Don’t be couch potatoes” is the advice he gave them in 2016. From addictions and crime to marriage, no topic is off the table during his encounters with the young.

I would beg to differ about that last sentence, because the patrimony of the Church and her settled doctrines have been noticeably absent for the duration of the papacy (unless used as foils for anti-rigid polemic), but that aside, we cannot forget his closing remarks to youth after his 2015 South American tour:

“They wrote a speech for me to give you. But speeches are boring,” the Argentine pontiff said to loud cheers, casting aside his script. “Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope.”

It was not the first time Francis has called on young people to shake things up, repeating a mantra he voiced in Brazil in 2013 when he urged youngsters to demand a more outward-looking Catholic Church. “We don’t want young weaklings. We do not want young people who tire quickly, who live life worn out with faces of boredom. We want youths with hope and strength,” Francis told the crowd, as night fell over the banks of the Paraguay River outside the capital Asuncion.

There are so many troubling things about this approach—the spirit of chaos that runs contrary to peace (“the tranquility of order”), the reference to the written word as boring (thus subtly discouraging his audience from digging into the pooled wisdom over many centuries), and the call to be rebels without defining the precise nature of the “tide” to be rejected.

While the Church has always been the most ardent advocate of the beauty of the human person, in order to promote his good, one must understand that for which the person was created. If Francis were speaking to youth who had been properly catechised—especially about the dangers of individualism; if they were familiar with the reality of having been created to to know, love, and serve God; if they had a foundational respect for legitimate authority, the authentic family, and the Church as the bride of Christ; and if they believed that the state of one’s soul at death was of primary concern to his afterlife—then appeals to courage, steadfastness of spirit, and singularity of vision would be a call to holiness.

But to say, “make a mess,” “swim against the tide,” and “speeches are boring” to uncatechised youth, unchurched laity, and novelty seekers (who have been drawn to a celebrity pope) is dynamite—explosive material with the potential of blowing up the very institution he represents. This is especially true when he couples the appeal to “hope” with the instruction to look outside the Church. (It may not have been his intention, but that’s what we get with “off the cuff” remarks that are meant to stave off boredom.)

But even all of this is peripheral to my primary point: which is that Francis’ appeal to the youth is not terribly different than that of the leftist radicals on college campuses. There, the inherited wisdom is rejected without a hearing, the old categories are understood to be straitjackets to be cast off, and the youth are to decide what constitutes truth according to their own lights—no matter that they are ignorant, inexperienced, and dangerously self-absorbed. (Any college professor worth his salt recognises that hormones, a new-found distance from home, and exposure to wildly divergent ideas combine to create a tremendous destabilising effect. To take advantage of these elements—or worse, to leverage off of this stage of growth for nefarious ends–is pernicious.)

It is true that the youth of every age are idealistic and enthusiastic. Such is the nature of our world that this new energy is constantly brought into the body politic—to breathe new life into the status quo, to humbly remind us of our own omniscience at that age, and perhaps to reinvigorate dissipated goods. What is deeply frustrating is not that the Church pursues the worthy effort to hear what’s on the mind of young people today, but the ongoing pretense that they really can decide what “ought to be.”1 Contrast this approach with the rigours of scholasticism, in which students were required to become entirely familiar with all of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and a canon of commentaries before ever engaging in careful dialectic. Contemporary sources had little authority and could only be used anonymously in argumentation. Even Albert the Great was chastised by some peers for allowing his name to be used in academic disputations. No newly-minted MBA expects to change Wall Street, and yet Francis has managed through his short years of pontificate to suggest that the man in the pew is finally to decide what is true, what matters, and where the Church ought to go. For the first time in Church history, the protestant notion that each person is to decide whether he is “right with God” is taking firm root, and the clergy are being encouraged to stand down on teaching otherwise. To take this attitude into a youth conference will either set them up for deep disappointment or destroy what’s left of the Church.

Until now, the deposit of faith has been non-negotiable, but the upcoming synod seems to suggest that enthusiasm trumps obedience, and docility should give way to innovation. In Scripture the Prodigal Son thought he knew it all, and yet both he and his “pious” brother misunderstood what the love of the father entailed. Time and experience opened their eyes, as most of us admit happened in our own lives. Narcissism, envy, pride, and ignorance are usually vices to be fought tooth and nail (before they destroy the person), but as things stand, this foreboding event of 2018 is being offered to youth as a watershed moment, when they will be encouraged to build the Church anew, to set things right, and invest in a hope that will save the world. Shame on anyone who would mislead them—and the Church Militant—in this way!

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1 Contrast this approach with the rigours of scholasticism, in which students were required to become entirely familiar with all of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and a canon of commentaries before ever engaging in careful dialectic. Contemporary sources had little authority and could only be used anonymously in argumentation. Even Albert the Great was chastised by some peers for allowing his name to be used in academic disputations.