Youth Need Truth! A Better Way for the Synod

The Vatican’s “working document” that will guide the discussions and directions of October’s Synod on Young People is flawed. It puts tremendous emphasis on personal experience and accompaniment as the primary means for reaching young people today. But what young people most need—what, deep down, they most desire—is the Truth of Christ boldly proclaimed. And what the Church desperately needs to help young people is a thorough renewal of faithful Catholic education as its primary means of evangelization.

There is little sense in this working document of the important role that strong and faithful education—whether in schools, parishes, or homes—should play in teaching truth and virtue to young people. Instead, there is great danger that the Synod will continue the now commonplace tendency of too many Church leaders and programs to soft-pedal the Truth of the Gospel and leave young people lost and drowning in the relativism of “liquid modernity.”

The Synod on Young People will fail if the Synod fathers do not confront the common culture that champions radical autonomy and a false concept of freedom that satisfies desire and a thirst for power instead of conforming to reality. The lives of many youth have become fragmented, incoherent, and indifferent to truth and meaning. The Church must address this crisis head-on, confident that—underneath this culturally sanctioned indifference—every person knows that truth is what they were made for. At their core, youth need truth, and youth want truth!

Confidently proclaim truth                                                                               

The Catechism reminds us, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” In other words, the game is rigged in our favor, if we can break through the anesthetizing effects of many elements of modern life. Even though the common culture seems to have the upper hand at the moment, we need not cower in despair. Instead, we need to take our advantage and teach the truth boldly. “Man tends by nature toward the truth,” but he is also “obliged to honor and bear witness to it.” The Good News, confidently proclaimed, is what the youth need to hear—and to what we are obliged to give witness!

Some parts of the synod document assist toward this end, but its meager and disjointed musings on the critical issue of truth need more robust development. This is even more necessary amid the crisis of the age, in which the dictatorship of relativism has entranced and enslaved so many people, young and old. The document’s main reflection on truth is limited to two paragraphs (out of more than 200), and they merit scrutiny. Here is the first:

54. With varying degrees of intensity, many countries in the world are dealing with “fake news”, i.e. the uncontrollable spreading of fake information through (digital and other) mass media and the growing difficulty of distinguishing it from real news. In the public debate, truth and reasoning seem to have lost their power of persuasion. This is why the term “post-truth” was coined. As one [bishops’ conference] points out, “in social networks and digital media there is no hierarchy of truth”.

This short section is titled “New Inquiring Paradigms and the Search for Truth.” However, neither the youth nor the modern Church has discovered any new paradigms in the search for truth. We can relax, go about the hard work of every age before us, and join them in the grand conversation, unburdened by any special enlightenment tied to youth or the modern age.

The section unhelpfully clouds the philosophical and theological pursuit of truth with the shallow political reality of “fake news” in “public debate.” The paragraph ends with a more helpful notion of this age being “post-truth” and lacking a “hierarchy of truth.” Unfortunately, these insights are just left hanging, without reflection, resolution, or guidance, as if there is nothing we can or should be doing about them other than to acknowledge them and silently surrender.

This seems to be pattern in other parts of the sprawling 61-page document: stumbling articulation of a challenge (often using the language and lens of sociology), acceptance of the situation as an irrefutable reality to which we must submit, and a sense that the youth are a superior foreign species beyond our ability to educate, rather than our children requiring confident teaching and parenting.

Young people want truth

We see this unfold in the second paragraph:

55. Young people are particularly exposed to this climate, because of their communication habits, and of their need to be accompanied to ultimately find their way. In the world of post-truth, the sentence, “Christ is the Truth which makes the Church different from any other worldly group with which we may identify”, that [the pre-synodal meeting] uses, inevitably ends up having a different significance compared to earlier ages. It is not a matter of giving up the most precious hallmark of Christianity to conform to the spirit of the world, nor is this what young people are asking for, but we do need to find a way to convey the Christian message in changed cultural circumstances. In line with biblical tradition, the recognition that truth has a relational basis is a good thing: human beings discover truth once they experience it from God, the only one who is truly reliable and trustworthy. This truth must be testified to and practiced and not just corroborated and demonstrated, something the young people of the [the pre-synodal meeting] realize: “The personal stories of Church members are effective ways of evangelizing, as personal experiences cannot be placed in question.”

To unpack what is disconcerting about this paragraph, first consider the quote from the pre-synodal meeting that is cited in the second sentence above. The pre-synodal meeting was intended to gather the input of young people. The full paragraph from the meeting report is as follows:

All the more, the Church draws the attention of young people by being rooted in Jesus Christ. Christ is the Truth which makes the Church different from any other worldly group with which we may identify. Therefore, we ask that the Church continue to proclaim the joy of the Gospel with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (11)

Contrary to the conclusions drawn by the authors of the working document, there is no indication in this quote that young people today need the Church to abandon past methods of evangelization. They ask the Church to “continue to proclaim” truth. There is no suggestion that the statement, “Christ is the Truth,” has any “different significance compared to earlier ages.”

If we accept the guidance in the working document, we might falsely conclude that Saint John Paul II’s inspiring World Youth Day VI message (the very theme was “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”) is incapable of resonating with this generation:

Jesus Christ meets the men and women of every age, including our own, with the same words: ‘You will know the truth and the truth will make you free’ (Jn 8:32). These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about the human being and the world. Today also, even after two thousand years, we see Christ as the one who brings men and women freedom based on truth…

In fact, this message still speaks—perhaps even especially—to this generation. As the darkness increases, so does the brightness of these words.

Young people are capable of reason

Paragraph 55 of the working document states that “truth has a relational basis,” and we only discover it when we “experience it from God.” This leads to the problematic advice to primarily evangelize with personal experiences, “since they cannot be called into question”—as if calling things into question was a bad idea or inimical to evangelization or to the pursuit of truth!

The advice relates to the pre-synodal meeting report, where the participants state, “We also desire to see a Church that is empathetic and reaches out to those struggling on the margins, the persecuted and the poor. An attractive Church is a relational Church.” But that is far from suggesting—as the working document appears to do—that a relational approach to evangelization is the primary approach worth pursuing in this “post-truth” age.

In fact, youth need and want so much more. In the pre-synodal meeting report, young people call for the use of “modern communication and expression” to proclaim truth with “answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations.” The Church, they say, should frankly address gender and sexuality issues and “dialogue with the scientific community.” So young people want, as they have always wanted in every age, the use of contemporary tools of communication, forms of expression, and topics of discussion. But this does not—as the working document argues—alter the “significance” of the Christian message to young people today or suggest changes to the Church’s approaches to evangelization. Instead, young people need and even want the Church to continue to appeal to reason and to explain Catholic teachings—not to retreat from Catholic education, but to better help today’s youth know and understand truth.

We can and must do more than just share personal opinion and experience; we must share truth itself. In Catholic philosophy, truth has an ontological (reality-based) nature. A primarily relational basis for knowledge is the seed of relativism, by which truth is seen as a social construct or based on a relationship of power.

The working document does not itself embrace relativism, but it does read as if the authors have lost confidence in this generation’s response to appeals to reason, which abandons young people to the influence and temptation of relativism. It is false to claim that we need to experience truth to know it. We know many truths by reason, revelation, and trust in the wisdom of others: we will die; Washington crossed the Delaware River; there are atoms; murder is wrong; a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same location; there is the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The crisis of this age persists because the secular world limits truth to personal experience and denies our ability to make binding truth claims on others. This denial of the ontological basis of truth is not Christian.

The Synod’s approach, then, risks giving into the post-truth world, rather than rescuing our youth from it. The Church has a remedy and way out. It is the same remedy that we have always had, if we only remain faithful to it.

Restore conviction, renew education

Catholic thinking, as philosopher Curtis Hancock reminds us, holds that when our senses are in good condition and functioning properly under normal circumstances, and when our reason is functioning honestly and clearly, we can come to know reality and have the ability to make true judgments about reality. We know that through study, reflection, experimentation, argument, and discussion—and especially divine revelation—we can know real things about the world, Man, and God. Of course we must share our personal compelling stories of conversion and belief; they are among the most powerful means of persuasion to be sure. But we must not surrender reason or objective truth in the process. This is precisely what the common culture already demands of our youth.

St. John Paul II, in addressing this crisis of truth, noted that:

The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and in grasping that truth can know their duties to God, to themselves and their neighbors. In meeting that challenge, the Catholic educator will hear an echo of Christ’s words: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions which uphold and teach that truth is “that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished.”

Contrast this with the working document’s brief section on catechesis (paragraphs 190-193), which indicates no apparent concern about “the educational crisis” that Pope Benedict XVI so often lamented, describing it to American educators as a “‘crisis of truth’ rooted in a ‘crisis of faith.’” The “religious illiteracy” of young Catholics and the exodus of young people from the Catholic Church are alarming, yet the working document makes no call for extensive, much-improved catechetical instruction. Instead, it claims that catechesis has a bad reputation among many young people as “compulsory and unchosen,” invites a review of catechetical programs with respect to their “validity for new generations,” and encourages “experience-based” as well as “content-based” catechesis.

The entire working document says little about Catholic education, as if the truths of our faith are not the keys to human happiness. To the extent that Catholic education is mentioned, the document fails to emphasize its traditional role as the Church’s primary means of evangelization. The document repeats Pope Francis’ ambiguous warning “not to proselytize” in Catholic schools, which was first made in 2015 and provoked some controversy—yet still, no clarification is offered.

This is no way to go forward with a Synod on Young People, especially amid the scandals in the Church and the secular assault on Christianity. We must be ready to restore conviction and actively uphold the truth. Modern culture is not infallible, and our youth are not oracles; both are subject to confusion and manipulation. Our job is to help young people find their way.

If we only tell youth what they already know or believe as driven by the common culture and their limited experience, they will rightly ignore us, because we have nothing new to say or different to offer. To effectively reach them, we must be faithful and authentic in making radical truth claims. Since the youth are wired to be bold, we must be bold; since youth is daring, we must be daring. They are attracted to misunderstood underdogs like us, as long as we are personally authentic and proud about who we are. It is radical and appealing to stand athwart this culture and proclaim that there are truths that exist, that hold true in all times and places, and that we must bear witness to for the good of all.

Many idealistic Catholic youth, eager to help change a world they know is in absolute shambles, will respond to this call. Because their world is already a mess, they do not need our permission or encouragement to make it messier. We can authentically challenge them to be more. To be advocates of beauty, seekers of truth, and architects of freedom is a task and adventure worthy of their properly oriented youthful restlessness and idealism. They are looking for answers, not confirmation of their confusion. They know the world they live in. They know it does not satisfy. It was not made to satisfy.

We, however, can play to our strengths by renewing faithful Catholic education and formation. We can embrace the human reality, “Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”

October’s Synod on Young People must reject dependency on experience as the primary means of knowing and learning, and instead strengthen the Church’s appeal to youth by reason and divine revelation. Young people, like all of us, need our Holy Mother Church to boldly and confidently proclaim the Gospel. Youth need truth.

Authentic Accompaniment: A Better Way for the Synod

The working document guiding the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment focuses on encouraging adults to accompany youth as they face new experiences and challenges. Regrettably, its accompaniment/discernment model falls short in three respects:

  1. it downplays the role of the adult,
  2. it downplays Church teaching and objective truth (reality), and
  3. it is overly fearful of rejection by young people.

As the bishops prepare to discuss the best ways to accompany youth in their October synod, they may benefit from the following insights from Monsignor Luigi Giussani, a modern master on the accompaniment of youth.

Accompaniment Properly Understood

Giussani (1922-2005) influenced the last three popes, especially through his teaching on the pedagogy of encounter and accompaniment. Giussani was a Catholic priest in Italy who was both a high school and seminary teacher as well as the founder of the influential Communion and Liberation movement. Pope Saint John Paul II named him Honorary Prelate to His Holiness. Cardinal Ratzinger, two months before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, presided over Giussani’s funeral Mass with more than 40,000 people in attendance. Although Pope Francis never personally met Giussani, he said of him, “For many years now his writings have inspired me to reflect and have helped me to pray. They have taught me to be a better Christian.”

Giussani’s impact on these three popes is in part due to his insight that relationship and witness are among the best ways to stimulate the youth to commit to Christ. Giussani also emphasizes that the way to break through the cynicism and despair facing youth is to offer them an education that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart, as God made it, and with an eye on the transcendent. He warns that errant cultural influences and the teen’s own impulsivity and impatience might obscure Nature’s original reality, power, and beauty. This rejection of reality, he warns, can then allow the teen to be fooled into creating his own standards and thus be at the mercy of whims and outside forces.

Giussani’s solution is to ensure that Catholic teachers and ministers act as stabilizing witnesses of a lived Catholic worldview and culture. This interpretive framework helps provide meaning to all reality and gets young people to commit to Christ as they progress into ever greater autonomy and authentic freedom based in truth.

His process works like this:

  1. The adult correctly sets up a proposal of a total meaning of reality via a Catholic “tradition” or worldview that is coherent and lived by the adult. This is the best way of providing certainty to the young person.
  2. The adult stimulates the young person to confront and personally commit to the verification of the proposal in his own life and test it against reality. This is the best way of ensuring free and true conviction.

In presenting this Catholic worldview in word and deed, the adult must not be indecisive, indifferent, neutral, or hesitant but offer it simply, clearly, and naturally, in full knowledge that the adolescent may still exercise his freedom to reject what he is offered. This is what Giussani calls “the risk of education.”

Adult Guidance and Discipline

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, remarked in January that the Vatican seeks “a new relationship between the Church and young people, based on a paradigm of responsibility exempt from any paternalism.” Paternalism seems to be used here as a pejorative term referencing any attempt to limit a person’s autonomy to promote their good.

For an adult, paternalism is usually inappropriate, but by its nature youth is a time when responsibility is not yet fully developed. Providing young people with structure and rules while they grow in freedom and responsibility is something that teachers, coaches, and parents do all the time, as they strengthen young people for success in academics, athletics, and adult life. To abandon the Church’s role as mother and leave youth to their own designs is just abandoning them to other forces. Youth will get those standards and ends from somewhere.

Giussani reminds those who work with young people that youth can be fooled into thinking they have created their own standards, when in fact they are at the mercy of their desires, whether by prejudices dictated by youthful narrowness or ignorance or by outside forces leading them to harm. Freedom requires the use of guiding standards and a clear understanding of proper ends. The role of Catholic mentors is to present and live another way, so as to provide the youth with compelling options counter to the world.

The Synod’s working document describes a mentor in part as “a confidant without judgment” who “should not lead young people as passive followers but walk alongside them” (132).

However, “a confidant without judgment” is a role better played by a young person’s casual friend than by a mentor. Lack of input by adults in the life of youth may be interpreted as approval or indifference to a situation, precisely when the adults’ gifts and wisdom are most needed and even expected. The adult must discern the best way to help the mentee grow in the truth. That need not preclude offering definitive guidance in the right place and time, and even definitive judgment.

It is also helpful to remember that “following” is not necessarily passive. Graduate students follow the guidance of professors in conducting their own research, and professional athletes follow their coaches. Radical autonomy is rare, even in adult life. Adults often need to follow other adults on the path to greater health, holiness, and wisdom. Caring guides walk beside, before, or even behind those they lead, depending on the situation at hand.

Clear Church Teaching

From the get-go, the synod document seems so intent on emphasizing the need to meet youth where they are, that the more important reality of “where do youth ultimately need to be?” goes unstated.

It is a best practice to start with the end in mind; in this case, the goal is for young people to be free and intentional disciples. The document, however, simply emphasizes a generic three-step discernment process—1. Recognize, 2. Interpret, 3. Choose—and the document itself is structured this way. But without clarifying a specific end, the process could be used in driver’s training or in career training, as much as in spiritual direction. Instead, a spiritual discernment process always needs to keep the goal of salvation in Christ clear and compelling, while acknowledging that salvation cannot be forced and can be freely rejected.

Earlier we saw how the document suggests adults walk beside and not judge youth, and in other places the document advises that mentors “do” rather than “say.” Specifically it tells adults “to realize they are a model that can influence others through what they are, rather than for what they do or suggest” (130, emphasis added). But this is not a “rather than” situation; it requires “both and.” It may be that the mentor is the instrument the Holy Spirit has sent to speak the words of eternal life to the young person. That must not be preemptively ruled out.

Self-imposed silence of God’s Word in the face of the real needs of youth could be akin to the story of the Good Samaritan, where the righteous pass by thinking, “Surely God or someone else will tend this wounded soul.” St. Paul explicitly exhorts us to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). Vatican II states, “nor is it enough to carry out an apostolate by way of example… they are to announce Christ to their non-Christian fellow-citizens by word and examples and to aid them toward the full reception of Christ.” Adults should ensure that the young have the truths of the faith and God’s Word before them. The youth have a right to know what we know and believe what we believe, which sometimes entails hearing the Word directly from us. Who else will tell them, if not us?

In other places the document seems to take a Rogerian non-directive and hands-off approach to discernment. Such an approach discourages offering clear guidance and, by extension, clear Church teaching or Gospel truth. It views discernment as:

a pastoral instrument, that is able to identify liveable pathways today’s young people can follow, and to provide guidance and suggestions for the mission that are not ready-made, but are the fruit of a journey that enables us to follow the Spirit. A pathway that is structured in this way invites us to open and not to close, to ask questions without suggesting pre-defined answers, to point to alternatives and probe opportunities. (2)

Perhaps if we did not know the meaning or end of life, the salvific role of Christ, and the moral teachings of the Church, this approach might make unqualified sense. But we know that the door is closed to many things, not the least of which are “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, arrogance, and foolishness” (Mk 22) and everything else which defiles us. Each of these has a pre-defined answer with no alternative or opportunity other than the clear call to repentance and holiness.

Adults must be sure and stable guides to youth. We must provide and model real answers from a Christian world-view, otherwise we have no business assisting them in the discernment process. Giussani emphasizes that an adult working with youth must present the truth which inspires him and then step back behind its overshadowing presence and be a living witness of love. This is often the key that will engrave the teacher in the student’s memory and engender feelings of fondness from the student.

Patience Without Fear of Rejection

The mentor puts himself at emotional risk in working with the youth. It is only natural and human for the mentor to hope and expect that the youth will respond with fondness to him or her as a person. And it is only natural and human to hope and expect that once the truth is laid out before the youth and clearly modeled in the person of the mentor, the student will “get it.” But in fact, the young person must be free to reject it all—and that rejection may be humiliating and hurtful to the adult.

For Giussani, it is precisely the risk of confrontation and rejection that helps create the young person’s personality in his authentic relationship to all things; it is here that he develops his freedom. The reality of rejection provides a real and clear inflection point: the point of risk and freedom.

This risk of rejection by youth is at the heart of accompaniment; we should not give in at the end and surrender truth to avoid being hurt or abandoned by the youth. Like the father of the prodigal son, we remain sadly behind, hoping for a return after the loving seeds of truth have been planted. The father neither follows the prodigal into the peripheries with enabling moneybags nor, as Anthony Esolen has observed, does he allow the son to re-enter his home unrepentant with alcohol and whores in tow. Rather, the father waits patiently hoping for a free return to the fullness of truth and life.

Compare such Gospel confidence and acceptance of youthful rejection to the Synod document, which worries that if we don’t let youth do what they want, in their way, and without comment, then we must either be “unbending judges” or “hyperprotective parents” who are responsible for driving them away:

…the Church “is brought into being” with young people, by allowing them to be true protagonists without telling them “it has always been done this way”… They expect to be accompanied not by an unbending judge, nor by a fearful and hyperprotective parent who generates dependence, but by someone who is not afraid of his weakness and is able to make the treasure it holds within, like an earthen vessel, shine. Otherwise, they will ultimately turn elsewhere, especially at a time when there is no shortage of alternatives. (142)

Again, the synod document seems to suggest a lesser role for adults; after all, the youth are the “true protagonists,” so it is supposedly necessary to shrink our role in the hopes they might decide to stay with us. But by definition a protagonist is simply a leading character, not the only character. In any good story the leading character will confront challenging realities presented by others that result either in growing in freedom and virtue or falling into vice and ruin. Adults must play their part, even if it risks ruin.

We have to at some point risk rejection and make “The Ask”: to speak the words of Christ, “Come follow Me.” We must lovingly show them that Christ and His Church present a different way—a path out of contemporary shallowness and despair. We enter their world, no matter what world they are in, to show them the beauty and wonder of God’s world and point the way to Christ. We accompany them, sometimes by their side, sometimes leading them, but always in word and example, pointing the way to truth and proposing meaning, so that they might come to love Him, know Him, and—in their own turn—share Him with the world, even at great risk.

Should the Church Be a Permissive Parent?

With concerns swirling around the Vatican Synod on Young People this October, the Church’s appalling failures to protect its young from predators, and the growing scourges of pornography, sexual activity, and STDs among even Catholic youth, it’s the right time to reconsider how the Catholic Church should be attending to the current generation.

I propose that we need to renew the once-familiar notion of the Church as mother to the Faithful. The Church gives us new life through baptism and instructs, feeds, comforts, strengthens, forgives, protects, and challenges us as we seek to make our way through the world and reach our heavenly goal.

Specifically, young people need the Church to maintain an authoritative style of parenting that exhibits both deep concern for the child’s wellbeing and confidence in what is right and true. This image of responsible motherhood suggests a hopeful path forward for today’s Catholic schools, colleges, and youth ministry.

Parenting styles

Parents may be labeled “authoritarian,” “authoritative,” “indulgent,” and “uninvolved”—these are the “parenting styles” often used by researchers to categorize naturally occurring patterns of parental practices and values.

An authoritarian parenting style is highly directive, with little or no deference to child input and little warmth. It is marked by obedience, strictness, structure, order, clarity, high demands, and rule orientation. Authoritarian parenting may have low levels of communication and harsh discipline (shaming).

An authoritative parenting style is both demanding and responsive. It is marked by clear standards but with disciplinary methods that are supportive and assertive, rather than simply punitive and restrictive. Authoritative parents balance demandingness and responsiveness: they firmly enforce rules and standards expecting them to be met while encouraging independence and communication.

An indulgent (“permissive”) parenting style is marked by responsiveness, leniency, and empathy more than demands and expectations. It allows for considerable self-regulation, avoids confrontation, and is democratic and engaged. Permissive parenting is marked by tolerance and acceptance of a child’s impulses, makes few demands for mature behavior, and minimizes punishment.

An uninvolved parenting style is marked by very few demands and very little parental responsiveness, and it leans toward neglect and rejection.

It should be clear that this last “uninvolved” style is not conducive to healthy and balanced children. But what do decades of research tell us about the relative merits of the other styles, and how might that guide Holy Mother Church?

The ‘cool’ mom

Studies show that authoritarian parenting’s harsh control can lead to even more undesirable behavior in the long run and possibly anxiety and low self-esteem. It may also limit a child’s opportunities and decision-making abilities.

For Mother Church, the negative impact of employing this style is the stuff of legend and lore. Some older-generation Catholics tell stories of the “bad old days” when nuns beat kids and priests told everyone they were going to Hell each Sunday from the pulpit. Incredibly, some young people today have picked up on the tale. In surveys preparing for the youth synod, they complain that the Church seems out of touch and judgmental.

That’s not a plausible characterization of the Church today, but it could simply be what children have always said about their parents. More than 50 years after the social revolutions of the 1960s and the impact of Vatican II, there is little evidence that today’s youth experience a harsh, shaming, and unresponsive Church. Here’s a thought experiment: List three permissive-oriented Catholic universities, schools, and parishes that you know well. Should be a snap! Now repeat the list for currently authoritarian-oriented universities, schools, and parishes. Not so easy.

Instead of authoritarianism, it’s permissiveness and relativism that saturate all elements of the experience of young people today. The crisis facing current youth is not one of rigid Catholics trying to box them in, but of the permissiveness of liquid modernity drowning them in false tolerance and relativism and leading them to think that any truth claim is short-sighted and mean. The dictatorship of relativism has blinded and enslaved many of our young people, hindering their willingness to seek the truth and conform to it when it is discovered. This may also impede their ability to make meaningful commitments and flourish as dynamic disciples.

The solution to this challenge is not more permissiveness, even though this is a temptation: One can almost hear some youth (or even some adults trying to reach them) saying: “Gee, all of the other churches get to have divorce, contraception, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, cool services, fewer demands, less moralism. Why can’t we?” We know from the sad experience of Protestant sects that this is not a recipe for ecclesial growth and commitment. But there is still the temptation to ditch adult responsibility under the guise of being more “relevant” in the lives of youth. Plus there is comfort in conforming to the age and the very human pleasure of rejoicing in our hip-ness in relation to others who are not as “with it.”

This is how one mother recounts her mom’s group discussions of permissive parenting and attempting to be a child’s friend or “the cool mom”:

I was told that if I was friends with my child, they would tell me everything. Other moms said they wanted to be a “cool” mom, and that they wanted their child’s friends to think they were “cool.” I asked what makes a “cool” mom, and my friends all said the same thing: not many rules (like staying up late watching TV, playing video games, computer, cell phone and texting without any rules or consequences for breaking those rules), not being “overprotective, ” letting their child go to the house of a friend they don’t know, letting them hang out at the mall at quite young ages (because everyone else is), letting them have a Facebook account before they are 13. I could go on and on… and I realized I must be in the minority, because to me it sounded like a cool parent is a parent that lets their child run their house. Apparently a cool parent doesn’t want to disappoint their child or deal with conflict and has a hard time saying no or setting limits.

Research has revealed that permissive parenting deprives children of the direction and guidance necessary to develop appropriate morals and goals. Rejecting discipline (i.e., control, punishment) is related to poorer psychological adjustment in children. Permissive parenting has also been shown to contribute both directly and indirectly to antisocial behavior, including increased conflict orientation in adolescent males. The chaotic and inconsistent parenting associated with permissiveness can be harmful to healthy relationships leaving children prone to weaker and ambivalent parent bonding and a feeling of insecurity when encountering an adult world.

These are not outcomes the Church can accept, especially in light of the recent scandals and a culture that presses young people into immorality and deviancy. Hands down, authoritative parenting, which is both demanding and responsive, outperforms authoritarian and permissive styles in virtually all areas. Authoritative parenting has been found to relate to higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction and to lower depression in children. Research shows these children have better conduct in school, higher cognitive performance, and less drug use and delinquency.

So authoritative is good; authoritarian and permissive, not so good. By embracing her role as an authoritative mother, the Church engenders the trust, closeness, and dependability that will lead to healthy bonding and lifelong development in the young.

Avoiding permissiveness

What does permissive parenting look like from Mother Church? It might look like trying to be a friend rather than a parent; like dropping standards; like coddling weakness and calling it strength; like being afraid to speak truth to kids who do not seem to want to hear it; like changing who you are and what you believe, because you fear kids will leave you. It might look like this passage from the document prepared for the upcoming Synod on Young People:

Young people want a “less institutional and more relational” Church, that is able to “welcome people without judging them first,” a “friendly and proximate” Church, an ecclesial community that is like “a family where you feel welcomed, listened to, cherished and integrated.” Also according to the Pre-Synodal Meeting, “we need a Church that is welcoming and merciful, which appreciates its roots and patrimony and which loves everyone, even those who are not following the perceived standards.” (68)

They expect to be accompanied not by an unbending judge, nor by a fearful and hyperprotective parent who generates dependence, but by someone who is not afraid of his weakness and is able to make the treasure it holds within, like an earthen vessel, shine (cf. 2 Cor 4:7). Otherwise, they will ultimately turn elsewhere, especially at a time when there is no shortage of alternatives. (142)

This is not to say that permissiveness is the intent of the document’s authors or the synod—only that it is a temptation and a possible outcome. This is a concern especially if the youth are overly idealized or approached with fear or pandering, or if their childish complaints are weaponized in an attempt to change Church doctrine.

How can we prevent such an outcome? By sticking to a research-proven, authoritative style with the youth.

What might this look like? It looks like caring more about young people than whether or not they care for you. It looks like calling them to their better selves; like presenting a challenge and making love-based demands; like speaking straight and affirming that compromise with lies is a false life; that courage, humility, and patience are absolute requirements for holiness and happiness; that life is tough and the road is hard, but the destination is worth it. That destination is clear: Christ Jesus.

Authoritative parenting from Mother Church might look like these gems spoken to the youth at various times by Saint John Paul II:

Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.

It is Jesus you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.

Genuine love… is demanding. But its beauty lies precisely in the demands it makes. Only those able to make demands on themselves in the name of love can then demand love from others.

The way Jesus shows you is not easy. Rather, it is like a path winding up a mountain. Do not lose heart! The steeper the road, the faster it rises towards ever wider horizons.

Authoritative parenting might also look like this observation from Pope Benedict XVI:

I believe that it is dangerous for a young person simply to go from achieving goal after goal, generally being praised along the way. So it is good for a young person to experience his limit, occasionally to be dealt with critically, to suffer his way through a period of negativity, to recognize his own limits himself, not simply to win victory after victory. A human being needs to endure something in order to learn to assess himself correctly, and not least to learn to think with others. Then he will not simply judge others hastily and stay aloof, but rather accept them positively, in his labours and his weaknesses.

Stay bold and true

Our young people do not need—and many do not even want—the Church to try to be cool. We need to relate to them authentically as the loving parents we are, rather than wanna-be hip friends. What they value is authenticity. They need people and organizations to believe what they say and do what they say. They celebrate and trust those who “stay true to themselves.”

Our success with youth will come if we stay bold and true to Christ. Eternity and youth are perfectly harmonized in He who is the alpha and omega. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb.13:8). He is alive, still with us and still young. It is not He who changes with each new generation of young people; it is His unchanging relevance which is ever new to each new generation. As St. John Paul II put it:

The Church of Christ is a fascinating and wonderful reality. She is ancient, being almost two thousand years old, but, at the same time, forever young, thanks to the Holy Spirit working within her. The Church is young because her message of salvation is young, that is, relevant for all times.

This is the confidence that our shepherds need to have during the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Jesus Christ spoke “with authority,” and that is how He revealed Himself. Young people today need to know this Christ who speaks with the authority of the Father. His Church leaders need to be confident that she possesses moral and doctrinal truth, and that truth is what young people most need to hear.

Our young people need the Church. Like a caring mother, the Church listens attentively to her young people to understand their needs. But she has the solutions! As mother to the Faithful, she teaches truth and forms young people in humility to listen to the Word and love His commandments.

With this in mind, the Synod on Young People can bear great fruit; but it will not if the Synod is dominated by a spirit of permissiveness and weak confidence in the Church’s superior wisdom. The failure to assert rightful authority is a danger to the lives and souls of young Catholics around the world.