By Frank Wessling
Americans are feeling like earthquake survivors today. The quake may be only psychological but the effects do not differ much from the real thing: what was solid and predictable before is now unsure.
We’ve lost confidence not just in Congress, big bankers, the presidency — all of the usual suspects when things go wrong. Everything now seems shaky. We are feeling the kind of global uncertainty that spread across this country and the world 80 years ago as the Great Depression began. Today’s problems hardly compare to the disaster beginning to unfold in 1930 but we are similarly hesitant and confused about the future.
It’s murky out there ahead of us and we aren’t sure where the solid ground is.
Young people seem to be affected with gloom right along with their parents. When a recent survey asked if America’s moral values are improving or declining, the millennial generation — those aged 18-29 — was with its elders in agreeing that we’re getting worse. Among people 65 years of age and older, 72 percent said our values are declining. This might be expected: the old folks always see with rose-colored rear-view glasses. But the millennials share this pessimism to a surprising degree: 60 percent also see morals falling.
The survey about moral values by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion asked whether respondents think several “social virtues” are valued enough. Among the virtues were commitment to marriage and religious observance. The Catholic millennials overwhelmingly — 82 percent — see marital commitment as undervalued. Apparently, young people still place great hope in marriage and want it to be a safe haven in an uncertain world.
However, their view of marriage appears to be top loaded with romantic feeling rather than religious conviction. When asked whether they think religion is undervalued in this country, most millennials said no. Among Catholics in that age group, only 43 percent said religious observance should be valued more.
It’s encouraging to know that young people see marriage as a highly desirable, stable platform for life. Not so encouraging, but also not surprising, is the news that young people trust romantic feeling to carry them forever. For most, apparently, religious observance is optional, with no substantial effect on their hopes for the future. It won’t make a difference.
Religion does make a difference, though, both in marital commitment and a hopeful stance in life, even during adversity. As a source of deep meaning, religion is the well from which virtually all of humanity drinks. And while our feelings — of love, of optimism, of brotherhood and sisterhood — can launch relationships and projects of all kinds, nothing is sustained without focused dedication that goes beyond feeling.
It’s not simply that going to church guarantees a good life. Going to church puts us on a tested and secure path to getting serious about life. This doesn’t necessarily mean solemn, a value that has its place but which too many people automatically associate with any and all mention of religion. We don’t have to be solemn to do well in life; we do have to be serious.
This is especially so with “values” as central as marriage. A fuzzy, feel-good, shapeless “spirituality” doesn’t have enough structure, enough firm floor of goal and duty to get us through the challenge of sharing life intimately with another person.
For Catholics especially, religious observance is crucial in reminding us over and over that there is mystery at the heart of life, and it beats with a rhythm of dying and rising. Each of us must become awake to that rhythm, realize that it carries us forward in all our relationships as we give part of ourselves to others in faith, hope and love, coming out new on the other side of each gifting. As often as not the new is born in suffering, and we become more able to understand, sympathize, suffer with and commit to one another.
The passion of youth becomes the compassion of mature love when guided through this religious path of growth. Love often means giving up, and a feeling like death itself. Jesus modeled this reality in an ultimate way and the church carries his dying and rising rhythm through history. Since it doesn’t show up in models of economic productivity and financial return, the modern American young person won’t learn of it in the news or in popular culture. This may be one big reason why so many fear that the mature love of marriage is not valued enough.
But they should get to church more if they’re serious about their concern. And the church must show the meaning of Jesus very clearly.