Many Truths? Coming to Terms with Pluralism

By Cavadini, John C. | Commonweal, November 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Many Truths? Coming to Terms with Pluralism


Cavadini, John C., Commonweal


Davidson and Hoge describe a difference in attitude toward other religions among Catholics of different generations, with older Catholics more likely to identify Catholicism as the only true faith, and younger Catholics, especially those of the "millennial" generation, more likely to think of other religions as just as good as their own, at least for those who espouse them. This is not really surprising, and it certainly corresponds with my experience of undergraduates (even "conservative" ones) in theology classes. What is surprising, and perhaps more interesting, is the similarity, rather than the contrast, this shows between the millennial generation and other age cohorts, even the generation of pre-Vatican II Catholics. I have a tendency to see the specter of relativism lurking behind every seeming concession to modernity, yet Davidson and Hoge's analysis shows that the openness of young Catholics to those of other faiths exists side by side with an attachment to, and even a deep affection for, the Catholic faith.

This widespread affection for the church exists despite the obvious difference in "feel" the young have for the church as an institution. It also exists despite the difference younger Catholics experience in the sense of connection to parish or diocese (partly accountable to the postponement of marriage and family), and despite the difference between younger and older Catholics in the degree of deference shown to church authority. This cross-generational affection for the church reveals an astonishing solidarity, a solidarity in love of the faith. It also represents a real intergenerational success story. Somehow the older generations have managed to hand on that which is most difficult to hand on to someone else: a love for something, a deep affection. This is all the more striking given the range of relations to the church and to official church teaching among the generation who are the parents of the current millennials. It seems that somehow we have all agreed to agree on something essential, namely, that the Catholic faith handed on to us from the Apostles is the one thing precious beyond price that we are determined to preserve precisely as a precious thing. This has been accomplished despite all the odds, and despite the recent sexual-abuse scandal in the church itself. Could we not see in this legacy the work of God at large?

From this perspective, it is not really a puzzle that the younger generation can seem more open to other faiths and at the same time happy with their own. For one thing, our era is generally one in which pluralism has made the extension of the benefit of the doubt to the "other" a cultural default mode--outside fundamentalist circles. If it went no deeper than that, we would simply be left with the seeming inconsistency that Davidson and Hoge find among the young (attachment on the one hand, the feeling that other religions are "just as good" on the other). But maybe these two seemingly contradictory values are actually connected. Perhaps affection for one's own faith--an appreciation for the benefits it brings both in times of joy and in times of trouble--makes it easier to recognize and thus respect the faith that others have. We could think of this as a kind of transitivity of affection for religious belief, in a way similar to what Cardinal Newman saw when he said "cor ad cor loquitur."

I am not saying that Catholics do not have intergenerational work to do. Although Catholics at large do not, at least according to the survey, put "ignorance of church doctrine" high on the list of things to worry about, I wonder how long you can hand down an affection for something when the substance of that very thing becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. …

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