By William Kilpatrick, April 9, 2019
In his new exhortation on youth, Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive), Pope Francis returns again and again to the theme that the Church must listen to youth.
Although Christus Vivit contains much that is inspiring and even moving, the good parts are often undercut by its insistence on the wisdom of youth. On the one hand, youth are encouraged to be open to the wisdom and experience of older people both in their families and in the Church; on the other hand, the Church is at risk of becoming a “museum” if it doesn’t listen carefully to the young. Thus, “Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill.”
In places, the document sounds less like the voice of the Church and more like the voice of the Woodstock generation—the now aging and dying cohort who once hoped, in the words of Bob Dylan,” [to] stay forever young.”
Many Catholics could wholeheartedly join in the prayer to “free the Church from those who would … encase her in the past.” But who exactly are the ones who are encased in the past? There’s a difference of opinion on that. Pope Francis seems to think that it’s the guardians of tradition, doctrine and morality—people like cardinals Burke and Müller. By contrast, some are of the opinion that it is Pope Francis himself and his aging inner circle that live in the past.
Francis and his ecclesiastical allies like to think of themselves as being in touch with the modern world. But in many respects they are throwbacks to the past—to a time when self-esteem psychology was in vogue, the youth culture was idolized, and multitudes believed themselves to be living at “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”
Unfortunately, a number of these aged Aquarians now hold all the power in the Vatican, and they seem determined to make the rest of us repeat many of the failed experiments of those decades.
Christ may be alive, but some in the hierarchy are still guided by the dead hand of a zeitgeist from whose toxic fallout our society has yet to recover. One of the lessons of that era—a lesson that is occasionally acknowledged in Christus Vivit—is that young people are very much in need of structure and guidance. They need intact families, knowledgeable teachers, and an authoritative Church. As a rule, they don’t have a great deal to teach their parents or the Church. Think of your own sixteen-year-old self. Can you recall any deep insights you possessed that hadn’t already been mulled over by the Church for centuries?
In response to the notion that the Church needs to listen more to youth, Cardinal Robert Sarah observed:
But the Church is not made to listen, she is made to teach: She is Mater and Magistra, “mother” and “educator.” While the mother listens to her child, she is first present to teach, guide and direct, because she knows better than her children the direction to take.
Will the pope and his circle listen to Sarah? It’s not likely. They are firmly set in their ways. And one thing they don’t fancy is the idea that children need to be taught. They prefer to think of learning as a matter of self-discovery—an unfolding of one’s inner wisdom. Christus Vivit, for instance, contains several cautions about teaching youngsters or instructing them in doctrine. It is better, says Francis, for them to learn by experience.
Not coincidentally, these ideas about experiential education became popular about the same time that the Rolling Stones and The Doors became popular. They are part and parcel of the same “the-kids-are-alright” mentality that led to Woodstock, psychedelic drugs, and widespread promiscuity. The 1960s and the ’70s were the “Me Decades.” They were all about the self—self-esteem, self-growth, and self-discovery. And the goal of all this self-absorption was to become nothing less than an “autonomous self.”
Not surprisingly, education became more a matter of learning about one’s self rather than learning about the world. Learning came to be seen as a natural process by which the child, led by his inner compass, would learn to know whatever he needed to know. It was a process in which the teacher functioned best as a “facilitator” rather than as an instructor. He was there to “accompany” the youngster on his self-chosen journey.
All of these Rousseauian ideas about education were more or less demolished in the 1990s by E.D. Hirsh, Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia. After reviewing the research, he concluded that the most important thing a teacher could give a child is knowledge of the world around him. Nevertheless, the idea that a teacher should be no more than a “guide at the side” remained immensely popular with both secular and Catholic educators.
But learning about the self rather than the world can be a dangerous distraction. There are a great many facts that one needs to know in order to avoid calamities. Some things are better learned in books or from teachers rather than through first-hand experience—things such as drug addiction, disease, unplanned pregnancies, abortion, depression, and suicide. “Experience,” as the saying goes “is a harsh teacher.”
There are also important facts about our relationship to God that ought not to be left to chance discovery. One fact about the world that Christ often emphasized is that it’s a sinful place populated by sinful people. He referred to the people of his own time as “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39), and he quite likely views the present era in the same light. He spoke often of sin, repentance for sin, and the forgiveness of sin. And, of course, the reason he came to earth and allowed himself to be crucified was to atone for our sins.
Yet when sin is mentioned in Christus Vivit, it’s quite often mentioned in the context of a Church that talks too much about sin, is too moralistic, and too condemning. Judging by Pope Francis’s frequent condemnation of rigid moralism, one might think that Catholic schools and Catholic pulpits are filled with modern day Jonathan Edwards warning us daily of the fate of “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” No doubt, such types could be found in the days of Francis’s youth, but now they exist primarily in his own imagination.
There is no sense in Christus Vivit that there is such a thing as a healthy fear of God. Also lacking is a sense that one ought to have a healthy fear of one’s fellow man. Francis doesn’t seem to worry much about his fellow man—or yours either. One word that appears in the document as frequently as “listening” is “open”—as in “open doors,” “open minds,” and “open hearts.” He wants Catholic schools and Catholic youth groups to make room “for all kinds of young people” whether they belong to another religion, whether they are atheists, or whether they have “other visions of life.” Hmm. Shouldn’t that be qualified? Communists have another vision of life. So do neo-Nazis, fundamentalist Muslims, and LGBT activists. And if you accept their children into your school without also accepting their “other visions,” they might just sue you.
That may be why a Catholic school in Kansas recently decided against admitting the child of a same-sex couple. To do otherwise would be to “open the doors” to a boatload of potential problems. One of those possible risks is a loss of the school’s Catholic identity. Indeed, many Catholic colleges are now Catholic in name only because they opened their doors years ago to faculty and administrators who didn’t believe what the Church teaches.
Pope Francis doesn’t seem to understand that there are limits to inclusivity. Christus Vivit is full of exhortations to “change,” “experiment,” be “fearless,” “take risks,” and “make room for everyone.” But 100 percent of “everyone” is damaged by a fallen human nature. What’s more, a not insignificant percent of “everyone” includes enemies who will do you harm if given the chance.
Yet Francis seems oblivious to the existence of enemy ideologies, enemy activists, and enemy states. His career is strewn with reckless misjudgments about people’s character and about their suitability for office. But of equal significance is his seeming inability to see the harm in various dangerous ideologies such as communism, socialism, and Islamism. Among other things, he has rehabilitated liberation theologians, endorsed the risky Iran nuclear deal, and given the communist government of China the power to appoint bishops.
In addition, he seems willing to put all of Europe in harm’s way by his unceasing campaign for mass migration from cultures that share few of Europe’s traditions, values, and laws. If Francis has his way, all those European youngsters whom he encourages to take risks won’t have much choice in the matter. Because of Francis and other elites who share his wrecking-ball approach to nations and cultures, life in Europe is becoming riskier by the day.
The risk, it should be noted, is not just to native Europeans, but also to the immigrants themselves. A recent news story out of England reports that Somali migrant parents in London are sending their teenagers back to Somalia by the hundreds to avoid knife crime and drug gangs. Seeing as Somalia is itself not the safest place in the world, one must assume that the situation in London has gotten well out of hand.
The point is that Somali parents, like most parents, don’t like to put their children at unnecessary risk. Perhaps because he has no children of his own, Pope Francis doesn’t quite grasp the point. He seems to think that you can mix it up, make a mess, and nobody ever gets hurt. In The Political Pope, George Neumayr relates a telling anecdote about the pope in this regard. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, we are informed, “taught swear words” to his sister’s son, and was delighted with the results. When he was in Argentina, Bergoglio had a reputation for using vulgar language freely, so he probably saw little harm to his nephew. But whatever excuses one makes for it, his behavior does suggest a certain careless attitude toward others people’s children.
If youth people are to be encouraged to take risks, they ought to be advised that the world is a risky place—perhaps far riskier than they imagine. Working in the Church can also be a dangerous vocation. Those who think they have that vocation deserve to know, for example, that the modern Church is highly susceptible to infiltration. I hesitate to use the word because it invites charges of McCarthyism, and other politically incorrect attitudes. But now that even Democrats are admitting that the Russians are trying to influence and subvert our elections, it might be safe to revive words such as “infiltration” and “subversion.” It seems justified, for example, to speak of a homosexual “infiltration” of the Church—of “gay mafias” and “homosexual networks” that seem intent on subverting Catholic teaching on sexual morality.
Meanwhile, communists have been practicing infiltration since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In the 1950s Bella Dodd, once the head of the Communist Party of America, testified to Congress that the Soviets had already infiltrated the Church with over eleven hundred men. At first, that seems difficult to believe, but it becomes less difficult when one considers that not a few members of the hierarchy appear to be enamored of socialist ideas. The current Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, for example, has held up the communist Chinese as “the best implementers of the Church’s social doctrine.”
J. Edgar Hoover called communists, “masters of deceit,” but these days you don’t have to be very deceitful in order to fool Catholic authorities. Because Catholics have long been sold on the importance of trust and openness, Catholic institutions such as colleges and seminaries are especially vulnerable to penetration. Islamists could also easily infiltrate the Church in various ways, but they probably don’t bother to since they can successfully manipulate bishops through the medium of interfaith dialogue. So far the imams have been running circles around their Catholic dialogue partners. They’ve convinced Catholics to sign-up with the anti-Islamophobia campaign, to join in solidarity with various Islamic causes, and to downplay the persecution of Christians by Muslims. Ever trusting and open, the bishops don’t even seem to realize that their dialogue partners are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood—an entity that has been labeled as a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The point is, it’s not enough that Catholic youth—the future leaders of the Church—be open and trusting. They also need to be alert to the fact that the Church has enemies, both within and without. These enemies would love to destroy her, and thus far they seem to have had considerable success in that endeavor.
That said, I don’t want to discourage young people or anyone else from reading Christus Vivit. There is much of value in it, including numerous inspiring, consoling, and thought-provoking passages from scripture. The document offers a healthy dose of hope to young people who may be confused or discouraged. But, as is often the case with the exhortations of Francis, some of it needs to be read with a critical eye.
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com