Latin American and Caribbean traditions speak to millennial Catholics, especially women

by Peter Feuerherd

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What do we tell our daughters?

For Catholic mothers, and fathers as well, worried that their daughters are shut out of church leadership roles and becoming increasingly indifferent to the faith, the answer lies in infallible teaching.

But, emphasized Dr. Natalia Imperatori-Lee, it's an infallible teaching that doesn't emanate from the pope or the bishops.

That teaching, said Imperatori-Lee, director of Catholic Studies at Manhattan College, lies in the sensus fidelium, or the sense of the faithful, taught by Vatican II to be infallible, much like papal teaching in concert with the bishops is considered to be unerring.

Imperatori-Lee made her comments at an April 15 gathering at Rutgers Presbyterian Church here on Manhattan's West Side, as part of a 25th anniversary celebration for FutureChurch, an organization devoted to Catholic church reform. FutureChurch supports a married clergy, rescuing parishes threatened by closure, and providing a place for all in church leadership, particularly via opening the diaconate to women.

Paintings of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, and Phoebe, seen as an early Christian deaconess, adorned the walls at this church. The meeting, which included a light supper, attracted about 70, mostly women of varied ages and ethnic backgrounds.

Deborah Rose Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, said that the organization is concerned that increasingly "young women find little of value in the institutional church."

Surveys, she said, indicate a growing cohort of "nones" among millennials, signifying those who do not identify with a religious tradition.

While older generations of Catholic women have pushed the church for more leadership roles, including priesthood, "I have the fear that this generation of women who follow us will stop knocking," said Rose Milavec.

Millennials, she said, are increasingly neither happy nor angry with the church. They are, by contrast, apathetic, and that should worry all who are concerned about carrying on Catholic tradition.

Imperatori-Lee said her experience with college students indicates that millennials aren't staying with the church.

"They are not even thinking about the church. They have moved on. They are not anti-Catholic, they are post-Catholic," she said.

And they aren't spiritually seeking either.

According to Pew Research Center, 88 percent of millennials are not even looking at any kind of faith tradition to embrace. Why? Theories abound, including the belief that church affiliation is seen as anti-intellectual and that church leaders have lost credibility with a focus on the culture wars, particularly in opposing gay rights, contrary to the views of most young people.

One of Imperatori-Lee's* students at Manhattan College, a Catholic institution located in the Bronx, N.Y., put it this way: "The church is a bunch of moral absolutists, but we are moral relativists."

She said that the church has been identified with three factors on the wane with millennials. One is shame; the other is hypocrisy, seen in the sex abuse crisis, the impact of which still pervades; and what she described as a "demonization" of doubt in catechetical programs.

"In demonizing doubt, we have left no room for questioning. The church that fostered Aquinas is now in danger of being anti-intellectual. Questioning is the friend of faith, not the enemy," she said.

The Cuban-American scholar said there are few easy answers to engage the faith of young millennial women, but she finds solace in Latin American and Caribbean traditions that can speak to an increasingly large number of millennial Catholics, including young women. This can be seen in particular with devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the image of the Virgin who appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego in Mexico and has become a symbol of Catholicism throughout the Americas.

The majority of young Catholics in the U.S. come from Latino backgrounds, and their numbers are growing. They come with a great sense of popular religiosity and devotions that developed often outside magisterial teaching.

In popular literature and art, the Virgin of Guadalupe, with her dark native features, "is not a namby-pamby virgin. She gets things done and she protects people who fight for what they want," she said, quoting an excerpt from Rosario Ferre's The Battle of the Virgins, a novel set in Puerto Rico.

Guadalupe "represents a powerful woman who protects those who follow their passions." She is sometimes pictured and described in popular art and literature as holding samurai swords and issuing thunderbolts, said Imperatori-Lee.

Popular devotions nurtured by Latinas throughout the centuries offer a different perspective than a more officially approved, passive Virgin. It's this image, said Imperatori-Lee, nurtured by the sense of the faithful, which can provide a natural appeal to millennial women seeking empowerment while connecting to Catholic tradition.

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

*The original version of this story had the wrong source quoted here.

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