It is the fate of every generation to be defined by its extremes. Thus young people today are derided as the “snowflake generation”: thin-skinned, fragile, selfie-snapping narcissists who run in terror for a “safe space” when exposed to a contrary opinion. They are portrayed in the media as “censorious cry-babies” who “love to be offended by everything”.
This is, on the face of it, bad news for the Church. Catholic doctrine is taboo-shattering. Our teaching on, say, abortion or same-sex marriage presents a profound challenge to the social consensus. If the Catechism of the Catholic Church were on the reading list at a trendy university, it would be plastered with “trigger warnings”.
But what if the “snowflake generation” moniker isn’t entirely accurate? What if the offence-seeking minority doesn’t wholly represent the rising generation? The 2016 Millennial Impact Report, released in America last Saturday, presents a more subtle portrait of young people born between 1980 and 2000. It says that these “millennials” are less likely to identify with political parties, or regard themselves as either “left” or “right”, than previous generations. But they are not apolitical: they care passionately about individual causes. More than 70 per cent said they believed they could have an impact on issues that they care about, without relying on traditional institutions, especially the state.
In other words, this is a generation seeking new ways of transforming the world beyond party politics. This is rather better news for the Church. For Catholicism has a particular genius for effecting change without controlling the levers of government.
Yet in order to convey what Catholicism offers, Church leaders must study this generation intensively. For millennials are likely to redefine politics, culture and technology in the decades to come. The Millennial Impact Report is a good place to start as it offers an empirical alternative to inter-generational name-calling.
Thoroughly investigating millenials’ attitude will ensure that next year’s synod of bishops on “young people, the faith and the discernment of vocations” is more than an episcopal talking shop.
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