Why Are Young Believers More Religiously-Conservative?

Here’s a good op-ed from USA Today by Anna Williams, talking about how young Catholics are more traditional than the last two generations. The author then notes that this is part of a broader patter: Protestants, Jews, and Muslims are also experiencing a generation of young and religiously-conservative believers compared with both our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Williams then suggests a reason for this phenomenon:

As a member of this strange millennial cohort, I have wondered this myself. I think the answer comes down to this: 1960s-style liberation — from moral codes, family obligations, religious commitments — has betrayed us. 
Sometime in the past century, a new creed emerged, saying everyone should make his own creed. This tolerant, open-minded ethos seemed to promise freedom: safe sex with many partners, drugs and alcohol galore and quick, no-fault divorce. So our Baby Boomer parents partied hard, yet in so many cases left us only the hangover: heartbreak, addiction and broken homes, plus rising rates of teenage depression and suicide. 

That seems like a very good place to start the conversation.  In our society, we’re seeing two basic camps emerge.  One camp thinks that if we just had more excesses or greater indulgences, we’d be happier: more money, more fame, more power, more women, more drugs, fewer rules, and so on.  The other camp has come to realize that all the money, fame, power, women, drugs, and lawlessness in the world won’t satisfy our souls.

Within Catholic circles, I often hear young orthodox Catholics of being against the Spirit of Vatican II. But really, we’re for Vatican II (well, most of us), but against the Spirit of the Sexual Revolution. I think Williams nails the cause.  That said, of course, there are many other factors.  To name two, specific to a Catholic context:

  • God has richly blessed us with the last two popes, Benedict and John Paul II.  Pope John Paul II seemed to “get” young people in a way that the “trying to hard to be hip” liberals didn’t.  He didn’t patronize us, or treat us like we had to have everything ( the Liturgy, the homily, etc.) dumbed down to understand it.  He challenged us, and countless rose to the occasion. The globe-trotting pope was rightly called a “rock star pope,” and his funeral was a global media event, with countless viewers (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) fixated on the screen.  While that’s not always healthy, JPII bore it all humbly, and used his influence to turn people towards God and neighbor.  Benedict has carried on JPII’s legacy in a quieter, almost self-effacing way.
  • The reform of the seminaries.  Seminaries in the United States were in terrible condition at the start of John Paul II’s pontificate. JPII oversaw a largely-successful reform of the seminaries.  The result is that the youngest generation of priests are more orthodox than the two generations prior.  Young and charismatic orthodox priests are going to inspire young people in a way that older liberal priests, embittered at their waning influence, simply won’t.  And these younger priests are also preaching the Gospel.  At heart, this isn’t just about personality.  If one priest tells you a story, and one priest proclaims the Gospel of Christ, the latter’s word will have more effect, precisely because he’s not acting on his own.
Now, even with the addition of these two factors, that’s still not a full picture. But hopefully, this helps paint some of the broad contours of the new Springtime in the American Church.


  1. Nice points. My armchair sociology on this is this that orthodox morality is now a counter-culture, at least for young people. And for some reason it is easier to get motivated about a counter culture than the mainstream. Or maybe that’s just me.

  2. Robert,

    I agree – I almost said something to that effect in the post, but it seemed sort of shallow. But I do think that taking a stand for what you think is right in the face of the broader culture tends to draw out the best in people.

    Earlier generations perhaps had it easier, when social norms imposed morality. The Sexual Revolution changed all that. Nowadays, I don’t need to tell you how violent and pornographic our culture can be. But society’s moral loss is also our gain, in that it makes us take an uncomfortable stand for the truth.

  3. I wrote about this as well on my blog today, and used this article as part of my basis. I think that Robert and Joe, you both touch on an important point. (One that I plan to do a follow up post to.) The idea of counter-culture.

    The nice thing is that Catholicism has always been, and should always be: Counter Cultural. You are correct that in the past half century we have seen that flip-flop a bit because of where this country is culturally.

    That being said, I think there was more to this flip-flop than simple cultural switches in morality – I think it also had to do with the way in which the faith was presented. Throughout time the Catholic Church held fast to stricter morality than was imposed by society, so to say that this switch was an anomaly is a little bit of a stretch – think you are both right when you say that society’s loss is certainly our gain.

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