Reading time: 4 minutes
The latest statistics from the Australian Community Survey are in, confirming a trend of recent years: young Australians attend church more often than their parents or grandparents, are more open to faith and more often try to be part of of a Church. community only to be locked out or to leave. Although the statistics are not broken down by denomination, it is probably fair to say that the 32% of young adults who attend church at least once a month are more likely to be in Hillsong than in St Joseph.
Why is the child or grandchild of a devout Catholic more likely to list “no religion” on the census or to attend a Pentecostal community than to practice the faith in which they were raised? There is no easy answer, although many Catholics have their theories.
Perhaps a factor, as identified by the philosopher Bruno Latour in Rejoice: or the torments of religious discourse, is that the act of confession of faith in contemporary society is buried under countless layers of controversy, commentary, criticism, translation, cultural estrangement and scholarly study. It’s hard to believe, hard to pray, because it’s hard to reach the language of prayer when language imposes so many competing demands on us every day:
“Although Latour partly aimed his criticism at the “heaviness” of traditional language, the younger generations find that traditional forms of faith, detached from the unpleasant connotations held by their elders, also offer them a new freedom to speak, to pray.
“It’s not religion he wants to talk about, not religion. It’s not from this vast layer of institutions, law, psychology, rituals, politics, art, cultures, monuments and myths… The only thing he wants to reactivate is the religious utterance…to disintegrate a form of expression that was once so free and free. inventive, fruitful and life-saving of yesteryear, but now dries on his tongue as soon as he tries to regain his movement, his excitement, his structure.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons young Christians seek out Pentecostals, where they worship God using contemporary pop music, in the contemporary language of self-care, assertiveness and esteem of oneself (and perhaps even personal enrichment). Pentecostals take God and make it acceptable to talk about him without any reference to the last two thousand years of Christian jargon – they just leave it all behind for the “inherited” churches to bicker.
But doesn’t this also partly explain the appeal of what has been called the “weird Catholic” revival among young people? If Latour partly aimed his criticism at the “heaviness” of traditional language, the younger generations find that traditional forms of faith, detached from the unpleasant connotations held by their elders, also offer them a new freedom to speak, to pray. They find in the Church’s traditional forms of prayer an idiom that is “always old, always new” by virtue of its alienation from the everyday English of business, media, drudgery. They are prepared to learn the faith, the meaning of its concepts and ways of belonging. Like the sparrow and the swallow evoked by the Psalmist, the young find a nest “at your altars, Lord of hosts” (Ps 84, 3).
Therefore, the worst possible religious vocabulary for the Church would be the one we are about to adopt within weeks. The language of the Framework of Motions, and of the Plenary Council more broadly, is a mixture of bureaucratic jargon and official theology. It expresses the concerns of older generations and is almost unintelligible to young people. Perhaps it is true that official documents require such a vocabulary, but it is not the language of faith, prayer and tradition. The irony is, of course, that these very documents were ostensibly produced by spiritual discernment and offered to members of the Plenary Assembly for prayerful reflection.
“As Latour writes, those who claim to save a man who is drowning in the difficulties of religious speech rather push his head under water…”
If this jargon finds its way into the pulpit and the confessional, its strangeness will exclude more Catholics from prayer life and, as ACS data shows, it will exclude more young people from the Church. The Plenary Council therefore offers us the opportunity to distinguish more carefully between the different types of speech we use and to ask ourselves whether our official languages have not strayed too far from their origins in Scripture and liturgical worship.
As Latour writes, those who claim to save a man who is drowning in the difficulties of religious speech rather push his head under water; “instead of throwing him a lifeline, throwing him words as heavy as a mooring buoy. Weighted with lead, that’s all – they weighted it with lead.
If young people are to risk the challenge of faith, swim in oceans of religious doubt and confusion, and find our parishes “truly welcoming”, as the Plenary demands, they will need lighter language than this that the Church is preparing to give them: they need the vocabulary of the Saints.