Young Adults and Social Change

Young Adults and Social Change


by Bill Droel

There is resurgence among U.S. Catholic young adults in the social mission of their faith. They are admittedly small in number. It is encouraging nonetheless. They are motivated through college volunteer programs, concern about the environment, the Pope Francis effect, economic realities in their jobs and careers, issues around race and gender, and more. (The social fervor among Catholic young adults can be found in other denominations, religions and in other settings.)

Perhaps it is time to briefly consider styles and effectiveness of Catholic social action, broadly contrasting an older style with today’s approach. There are similarities, of course, and back in the day some people practiced the new style and vice versa. Thus, I will use the present tense to describe both because old vs. new is a fluid distinction. The new might have a superior theology and create more change, but I need persuasion on that.

The old approach is more or less an application of Catholic social principles as derived from natural law. It is animated by the doctrinal image of the Mystical Body of Christ, which regards each person as equally godly.

Social justice is a key principle in the old way. However, that virtue has a more precise meaning than the same term used generically today to mean any involvement or concern around an issue or piece of legislation. The act of social justice for old-school types is like-minded people organizing inside an institution to change or improve policies. They have a prior goal; they intend to follow-up; and they are ready to compromise.

In keeping with the Mystical Body theme older Catholic action invests in the reform of local bodies or groups that buffer a person from bureaucratic government (collectivism) and from the pervasiveness of financial capital (individualism). While critical of ideologies like capitalism or State control, the old approach is generally positive about achievements in culture and about the founding aspirations of institutions.

The purpose of the classic approach is building up and sustaining organizations, as much as it is about tackling issues. It pays attention to the formation and support of leaders: their knowledge of doctrine, their proficiency with public skills and their spiritual lives. It is broadly ecumenical—both cooperating with non-Catholics and others to create change as well as structuring dialogue with other faith traditions.

Several groups in days gone by supported Catholics in their efforts to broker change within their workweek settings, once called milieu specialization. To name only a few: National Conference of Christian Employers, Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, Catholic Interracial Conference, National Council of Catholic Nurses, Catholic Lawyers Guild, Young Christian Workers and Christian Family Movement.

Today’s Catholic young adult activists, while inspired by their faith, get involved in response to an observable evil like discrimination, inadequate housing or violations of rights. They draw upon Scripture more than Catholic philosophy. They put a premium on experience over abstract principles. The term social justice is not restricted to organizing from the inside. It can mean serving dinner to the homeless, advocating for specific legislation, protesting outside a bank, participating in a flash mob rally or helping a less fortunate or aggrieved individual.

Some young adults are rediscovering the union movement, especially the new worker centers. But they are not eager to attend monthly meetings of a union local. Some campaign for a national candidate, but they rarely commit to their local precinct. In other words, they are—with good reasons—not attracted to venerable institutions, including, let’s be honest, most parishes.

Along these lines, the new style favors solving a problem or winning a grievance over cultivating long term face-to-face relationships. The new style is more movement than organization, more guerilla-like tactics than internal plotting. In keeping with everything young, the new mode makes heavy use of Internet-enabled tools. Campaigns do not take shape in church basements or at corner sandwich shops.

This brief reflection is not a call to revive or replicate the old Catholic groups. It is to gently raise some questions: How will college and weekend involvements be translated into a lifetime of career and family? What prevents burnout for those young adults who carry their social action interest into a consuming job with a legal aid clinic, an environmental group, a union perhaps or a non-governmental organization? What is Catholic about the social action conducted by young adult Catholics? Does it matter whether or not they have a Catholic sensibility to their public life?

Droel edits a free print newsletter on faith and work titled INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)