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Seeking a New Order

Arts & Culture | April 8, 2013

“Even though there is the whole confession thing, that’s no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply…eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.” Jokes like this one—made by Alec Baldwin’s Boston-born, Irish Catholic CEO in 30 Rock—echo a sentiment that’s become familiar to us all, Catholic or not. Negative views of the church—from the lightly humorous to the dead serious—can feel ubiquitous, especially among the younger population, who are reportedly leaving the church in droves. Four out of five Catholics who have left the church did so before the age of 24, according to The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, part of the Pew Research Center—a non-partisan think tank. The largest religion in the world is shrinking, at least in North America and Europe, and its youngest members are leaving the pews faster than anyone.

“I think it’s a major problem for the Church and it should be a wake up call,” Tufts senior Rebecca Marrero said when discussing her own views on the church. As the president of Tufts’ interfaith group, CAFE (Conversation, Action, Faith and Education), she explained that her disagreements with the church disappoint her, but have not led her to completely abandon her faith. A 2009 Pew study found that half of former Catholics said the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control were their primary reasons for leaving. Those doctrinal stances combined with the devastating clergy abuse scandal have only added to the church’s complicated relationship with both the secular community and its own 1.2 billion members. “They messed up real bad,” Marrero said. “It’s unrealistic for people to just take this lying down. No, they’re not going to protest – they’re going to leave, and you may never see those people again.”

Senior Juan Carlos Montemayor Elosua is among the formerly faithful who have rejected the church’s ideas. His journey away from the faith started at a young age. “My first decision to leave the church may or may not have coincided with starting to masturbate,” he said, laughing. “I went to a priest and he said a boy my age shouldn’t do that…oh, that’s wrong because Jesus said it was wrong, did he really though?”

Elosua is a native of Mexico, where in 2010 about 87% of the population categorized itself as Catholic. This number dropped from 88% in 2000, reflecting trends in other traditionally Catholic countries like Ireland and Spain. Sociologist Roberto Blancarte claims that between 2000 and 2010, more than one thousand Mexicans left the Catholic Church each day. For Elosua, who says that going to mass in Mexico is a “social event,” the decision to eventually leave the church was met with resistance from his family.

“[My grandmother] said, ‘Listen, you can’t renounce this religion until you know more about it.'” That made sense to Elosua, who decided to learn everything he could about the church and make an informed decision. “I became a hard core Roman Catholic,” he said. After immersing himself in the church’s practices through mass attendance, mission trips, and Bible study, he decided by the ninth grade that he still could not in good conscience be a part of the religion.

As the 2009 Pew study reflects, many Catholics may feel conflicted with wanting to remain part of their faith community, but feeling alienated by some of the more conservative social doctrines. “These issues don’t affect me personally because I don’t get my social views from the church,” Marrero explained. “I want spirituality and underlying big concepts like love, humility, and respect for the poor—not mandates about sex. So I ignore the church whenever they make those proclamations. I learn about them so I can know what’s happening, but I won’t follow if I don’t agree.”

Elosua sees this kind of cherry picking of ideas—which can occur among members of any institution, from organized religion to political parties—as problematic. “A big part of why I made the decision I made was because of the hypocrisy,” he said. “A lot of people define on a personal scale what it is for them to be a Roman Catholic, but…there are teachings that tell you what being a Roman Catholic is. You can’t believe in this and not believe in that.”

Senior Griselle Ong, who serves as current president of the Tufts Catholic Community and is from the predominantly Catholic Philippines, views this as a multifaceted issue. “Let me explain this through the eyes of my Facebook newsfeed,” she began. “On the one hand, I see Facebook friends with status messages decrying the conservative stance of the Vatican; on the other hand, I see Facebook friends on the other side of the Pacific talk about their faith in the church.” She suggested that cultural differences play a large role in perceptions of the church’s current dynamic with its younger members, as well as its sometimes controversial social stances. “Bring up a person in a specific place with a specific belief system and the Catholic Church can either be saying all the wrong things or all the right things. Consequently, anyone is either trained to or chooses to pick and choose what he or she wants to see.”

With the recent election of a new pope hailed by some as refreshing change and bemoaned by others as a step away from the church’s recent trend towards older traditions, the religion’s relationship with its young people remains in a state of flux. Newly elected Pope Francis, an Argentinean, is known for displays of solidarity with the poor as well as public gestures of simplicity, such as his much-discussed swapping of former Pope Benedict XVI’s golden throne for a simple white chair. Francis is also a Jesuit—an order of brothers known for their intellectual approach to doctrine and liberal-leaning social views. But many question whether his appointment will change anything at all, and for many young Catholics who have already strayed far from the church, his election may be far from enough to draw them back.

Even more timeless than the church’s far-reaching influence and reluctant overtures towards change is the young person’s archetypal quest for spiritual meaning and truth The deep and open examination of established institutions is not unique to today’s young Catholics by any means; their current inquest has just been thrust into the spotlight. Ong suggests that this sort of questioning that some see as cause for alarm is actually exactly what all young people, Catholic or not, should be engaging in.

“I think all of us should ask why we believe whatever faith we have and why we follow certain traditions,” she said. “I don’t think it’s productive for anyone to blindly follow traditions simply because his or her parents or family made him or her do so. Being religious is only rewarding when you can attest to having asked the right questions, engaged in the necessary conversations and devoted enough time for introspection. Particularly, in the case of the Catholic Church, it is important to distinguish between the faith and the limitations that are present in any institution established by people. Thinking about all these issues is a lot of work,and it’s never-ending work, but ultimately it will only make your sense of faith and identity stronger.”