by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In last week’s column, I observed that the most significant reason for the defeat of the “Value Them Both” amendment in Kansas was the large turnout of young, first-time voters. For some, this might seem surprising, especially if you have ever been to Washington, D.C., in January for the annual March for Life.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans come to our nation’s capital, usually amid frigid temperatures, to advocate for the sanctity of every human life, especially the child in the womb. A large majority of those participating in the March for Life are under 30. Some have even referred to the under-30 crowd as the “pro-life generation.”
It is true that there are many, many passionately pro-life young people, but sadly, as the vote in Kansas revealed, there is an even larger number of American youth who identify themselves as pro-choice. Of course, they have been subjected to a steady diet of pro-abortion propaganda from government schools, the entertainment industry and the news media.
Perhaps, even more influential upon the attitude of young adults has been growing up in a pop culture where the seeking of pleasure is the goal of life. With the widespread availability and use of contraception, they believe in sexual intimacy without consequences. They do not allow for the possibility of the conception of a child resulting from sexual intimacy, even though the failure rate of contraceptives is significant. Similarly, the culture has formed our young people to ignore or even to deny that sexual intimacy communicates a profound commitment to another person.
When pregnancy does occur, it is experienced as a problem, not a cause for celebration. With the high cultural divorce rate, many of our young people have not witnessed committed and faithful love from the adults in their lives. They are immersed in a culture in which one is considered freakish and a social failure without the experience of sexual intimacy. If sexual intimacy is only about pleasure and sensual gratification, then abortion becomes an essential backup for failed contraception. They cannot imagine a world without easy access to abortion — to the ability to kill their own unborn.
Sexual promiscuity is not good for young people’s physical health. Though it is rarely acknowledged as a significant public health problem, sexually transmitted diseases have been at epidemic levels for decades. Nor is promiscuity good for our young people’s emotional and psychological health. There is a natural and inevitable bonding that occurs from sexual intimacy. A man and a woman can attempt to redefine the meaning of sexual intimacy, but the language of the body — complete physical giving of oneself to another — is too powerful. There are inevitable hormonal and emotional consequences.
It is good that our society is paying attention to the high levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression and even suicide among our young people. However, we are mistaken if we think this is only a result of the societal response to the COVID pandemic. Certainly, the increased isolation caused by public health protocols made the problem worse, but high levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression were already problematic.
Frankly, I have grown weary of the mantra that many young people reject the Catholic Church because we are the “Church of No!” Actually, it is to the church’s credit that our Catholic moral teaching has remained clear about the harm that we do to ourselves and to others when the experience of sexual pleasure becomes a higher personal priority than faithful and committed love.
Of course, our moral teaching is not only about saying “no” to using others for our pleasure, but it is about saying “yes” to authentic love — a love where we seek the other person’s good. The vows that married couples pronounce are beautiful and powerful because they are both bold and radical. Striving to live those vows daily, by seeking the good of one’s spouse over one’s own personal desires and preferences, makes the marital embrace authentic and beautiful. What a married couple expresses physically to each other corresponds with what they are striving to live in every other dimension of their lives.
It is in the context of the marriage covenant where the gift of new life can be welcomed and is a cause for joy. What possibly could be more meaningful than the love of a man and a woman being the human instrument God uses for the creation of a new and unique human life? What could be more important than the forming of a family, where true love is experienced and taught by the example of a devoted married couple?
St. John Paul II challenged Catholics to build a culture of life and a civilization of love. Laws reflect culture. They express what a culture values. The gurus of the sexual revolution and the advocates for abortion gave birth to a culture of death and a civilization of self-absorption.
Cultures are formed by the individual choices of its members. The cultural changes that I have witnessed in my lifetime are startling. From today’s vantage point, they seem to have happened very rapidly. In reality, the cultural upheaval we are experiencing is the result of decades of gradual changes in priorities and behaviors. Two thousand years ago, Christianity changed a hedonistic pagan culture in a relatively brief time (a couple of centuries). This cultural change was the fruit of the witness of love, hope and joy observed in the Christian community.
The loneliness, anxiety and sadness in our current culture makes it ripe for change. We begin to build a “culture of life” and a “civilization of love” by fostering respect for human life, reverence for the dignity of every human person and the renewal of Christian marriage and family life. When our Catholic faith is lived well and with integrity, it is attractive. When others see in us a love for one another, a compassion for others and a joy even in the midst of the difficulties of life in this sin-fractured world, they will be drawn to the source of our love, our peace and our joy.
Of course, the source of our concern for others, our indomitable hope and our infectious joy is our friendship with Jesus and the truth of his Gospel. Though they may not realize it yet, our young people are longing for what we possess in the beauty of our Catholic faith. We change culture by one relationship, one friendship, one soul at a time. Christianity is infectious. It is more infectious than COVID-19.
It is our responsibility and privilege to be instruments of cultural change. Our young people know the shallowness of the dominant culture and its inability to satisfy the longings of their hearts. All we have to do is to be authentic witnesses of the joy and the love of the Gospel.
Ideas and teaching are important. We must proclaim the truth of the Gospel. However, Pope Emeritus Benedict once remarked: “The world has grown weary of arguments.” However, the beauty of living the Christian life remains powerfully attractive.
Living the joy of the Gospel in our families, in our friendships, in our professional and work life is the most effective tool of evangelization. We have what the millennials and Generation Z long for and desire. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. We can create a “culture of life” and a “civilization of love” by living the Gospel of Jesus in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.