It is often reported that young adults don’t go to church, don’t marry and don’t vote. Any pastor can relate that young people disappear shortly after their Confirmation and return when it is time to get married or, more likely today, when they want their first baby baptized. The latest Pew Survey found that while church attendance is off, generally “the main reason for the decrease was due to millennials (18 to 35 year olds) leaving the church.” Pew researchers offer a similar bleak statistic regarding marriage: “If current trends continue, 25% of young adults in the most recent cohort (ages 25 to 34 in 2010) will have never married by 2030. That would be the highest share in modern history.” And the data from the US Census Bureau on voting is not much more encouraging: “In every U.S. presidential election from 1964 on, 18 to 24-year-olds voted at lower rates than all other age groups. In contrast, Americans 65 and older have voted at higher rates than all other age groups since the 1996 election.”
Church, marriage and elections played a determining role in American life from the time of the Civil War until the 1960s. Weekly church attendance was highest just after the Civil War and after the Second World War (more than 60%). Divorce was rare even during the early lifetime of most senior Catholics reading this article now. And voting for the first time was akin to getting a driver’s license. It was a sure sign of maturity. Yet these time-honored bulwarks of American and Western civilization are in decline among our youth. And most sadly, disregard for religion, family and citizenship effects the less well off more than the well to do. “There has been far more family breakdown over the last four decades, but it’s the poorest who are being most affected,” one British survey contends. And where family life is ill-regarded, church and state cannot be of much concern either.
The recent distressing referendum in Ireland in which the voting population overwhelmingly approved the re-definition of marriage to include the union of same-sex couples casts a very interesting shade on the data presented above. This recent Irish vote indicates indifference toward the Church, indifference toward traditional marriage and even disregard for personal voting habits. But first of all, the question is, “Who is the Irish voter?” Ireland has the youngest population in Europe. American President Bill Clinton observed that Ireland has “…the youngest, best-educated workforce in Europe.” And not only has Ireland the youngest population, it also has the lowest proportion of people over 65. Only 11.3 per cent of the Irish qualify as senior citizens! (In harder times these older Irish emigrated.) So obviously, who wrote so-called gay marriage into the Irish constitution? Clearly it was the young voter – a voter with proven indifference toward Church life, a voter with proven indifference toward married life, and a voter who generally is indifferent toward civic life, except when an issue flies in the face of convention and they feel they can “make a statement” regarding the way the world should go. Remember that American young people significantly voted for America’s first black president, clearly a sign of the times.
An anti-establishment mood among young and old pervades much of Western civilization today. Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks are appreciated much more than the substance discovered in the heart of his speeches. Bill Mahar is cheered much more than Bill O’Reilly. Any swipe at convention is warmly endorsed! Regular Church attendance, enduring family stability and a civic life based on Christian values were once the strength of Western society and certainly of the Roman Catholic Church. Now both society and church face a future that is filled with uncertainly. Young adults who do go to church, who do appreciate family life and who value Christian social principles (and happily there are some!) must wisely propose these standards to their peers. This might be more helpful than the encouragement of parents and clergy which clearly has had a dismal record of success.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus hears the news that the little girls he was asked to cure has died, St. Mark records, “Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus said to the synagogue official, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” In the face of today’s sad message about Church, family and civic life, hesitant fear must once again yield to firm faith in the providence of God.