September 7, 2018

Religious Education Supplement

‘Unofficial religion’ fails young people who seek truth of Christ

Youths from Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis pose for a photo near Monument Circle during a break from the 2017 National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis. In the front row are Narely Vasquez and Karen Rodriguez. In the back row are Behira Salgado, left, Yessica Cruz, Montse Rodriguez, Jaira Salgado, Isenia Rodriguez, and Suyen Salgado. (Submitted photo)

Youths from Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis pose for a photo near Monument Circle during a break from the 2017 National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis. In the front row are Narely Vasquez and Karen Rodriguez. In the back row are Behira Salgado, left, Yessica Cruz, Montse Rodriguez, Jaira Salgado, Isenia Rodriguez, and Suyen Salgado. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When it involves faith, Ken Ogorek likes to stay aware of the latest approaches and developments—including the ones that trouble him.

And among the most troubling developments for the archdiocese’s director of catechesis is one that he describes—not exactly glowingly—as “the unofficial religion of North America.”

Ogorek says it’s an approach to faith that has been embraced by an increasing number of youths, young adults and their parents, an approach that can be summed up by its five distinctive points:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on Earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Actually, these five points are summarized in the book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that is co-authored by University of Notre Dame professor Christian Smith and Clemson University professor Melinda Lundquist Denton.

“Such a de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but is also more than a little visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens, other religious types of teenagers, and even many ‘nonreligious’ teenagers in the United States,” Smith writes in an article about this particular approach to religion that he and Denton have termed, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

It’s an approach to faith that both Smith and Ogorek find troubling for Christianity.

Speaking a different language

In the same article, Smith notes, “The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness and an earned heavenly reward.

“It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”

From Ogorek’s perspective, this pervasive approach to religious faith among young people pales when compared to the depth of the Catholic faith and the personal relationship that Christ offers.

“One thing I like to do is look at the basic tenants of moralistic therapeutic deism and compare them to what Jesus asks of every disciple,” Ogorek says. “His instructions are simple—be a disciple, make disciples of other people, make sure folks know how important baptism is and that they’re invited to be baptized, and teach them about doctrine and about morality; what it really means to be good.”

Ogorek also points out the flaws within some of the five major points of moralistic therapeutic deism.

“The idea that God isn’t really all that involved in our daily life or doesn’t care about our daily life, or it’s OK to ask God for things occasionally but it isn’t like we want to have any sort of ongoing conversation with him—that completely flies in the face of having a disciple relationship with Jesus and, through Jesus, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”

Trying to counter such misconceptions about faith is one of the archdiocese’s goals from an instruction standpoint.

‘Jesus Christ is the answer’

“In various ways, we’re trying to raise awareness of this situation,” Ogorek says. “That might not sound like much, but it’s an important start.

“Then over the course of time, we work with catechetical leaders, helping them to see the connections between what we teach and the resistance that can be out there in the broader culture.”

The archdiocese’s approach also consists of continuing its efforts to emphasize the importance of education in Church doctrine—an emphasis that wasn’t always stressed in the 1970s and ‘80s, which helped contribute to the rise of moralistic therapeutic deism.

Ogorek says the heart of that Catholic doctrine can be found in a quote he shares from St. John Paul II, “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life.”

“Our Catholic faith offers us authenticity,” Ogorek says. “Deep inside, we all crave authenticity. That word keeps coming up when we talk about young people and what they crave in other people and the Church. Our Church is encouraging us to be authentic and then let God’s grace do the rest.”

What young people are craving

Helping young people in central and southern Indiana develop such authentic relationships is at the heart of the archdiocese’s Office of Youth Ministry and the Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry.

As the director of the archdiocese’s outreach to youths, Scott Williams sees a change occurring in the best way to connect with youths to help them develop a deeper relationship with Christ. He says the number of youths involved in large group meetings is dwindling while smaller, more personal groups are becoming more desirable—and more effective.

“If you would have asked me 10 years ago if a coffee shop, small-group meeting before high school students go to school would have worked—waking up at six in the morning—I would have told you that you were crazy,” Williams says. “But there are several successful group meetings that are happening in the early morning because young people are craving that authentic relationship with other people.”

That’s especially true in a culture where technology is so much of a factor in the lives of youths, Williams says.

“The one-on-one conversations tend to be something that young people are having a desire for,” he says.

To accommodate the connection, Williams is focusing on encouraging parish youth leaders to recruit other adults in the parish who can help with creating these smaller groups of influence.

“We look at Jesus himself. He invested in 12 people, and they went out and changed the world. That’s what we’re trying to achieve in youth ministry. A single youth minister at the parish doesn’t have the capacity or the resources to individually disciple every high school student or junior high school student. But the more we can replicate smaller circles of influence and smaller Church communities, that’s a shift we’re going to see in the life of intentional discipleship.

“Holiness is contagious,” Williams says. “The more someone is around people that are living an authentic and holy life, the more people in that circle of influence are drawn to that deeper sense of holiness. And that’s what the Church offers, that’s what the Church teaches—a deeper encounter with Jesus.”

‘The heart of Jesus’ message’

Matt Faley has a similar approach as the director of the Office of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry for the archdiocese.

“I’ve heard it said that the heart of Jesus’ message is that there is a great banquet that corresponds to the hunger we all feel,” Faley says. “I see this as we serve alongside young adults in the Church and in the world now.

“They are hungering for the same things every generation hungers for—community, meaning, purpose in their lives—but doing so at a time in history where it is very difficult to find them.”

The programs for young adults in the archdiocese include spiritual retreats, athletic leagues, small faith groups and Theology on Tap, but the goal is always to help young adults draw closer to God in a way that makes that relationship essential to their daily lives.

“We work alongside our parishes and college campuses who are doing the same in their communities,” Faley says.

“[Our ministry] exists to seek these young adults out, to open up the doors of the Church to show them that we have the answer to these hungers. We create programs that are specifically designed to meet young adults where they are, introduce them to Jesus and the Church, and then to walk with them on the path to discipleship.”

Ogorek believes that essence of the Catholic faith will be far more sustaining for youths and young adults than the approach of moralistic therapeutic deism.

“What our Catholic faith offers us first of all is truth,” Ogorek says. “And truth doesn’t always make us comfortable. But, ultimately, it’s what we need and what we crave.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!