Maybe I’ve spent too much time listening to World Youth Day coverage and reading articles like this one written by a friend of mine who ran our college’s vibrant Catholic Society. I was surprised to find this article by Hemant Mehta on CNN’s Belief Blog explaining why young people are leaving their churches for atheism. If he’s right about young people’s reasons for atheism, we Catholics need to get our evangelical act together. The Catholic Church has everything they want (and more!), and we ought to get the word out. While I’d love to address Mehta’s article thoroughly, this is my sixth attempt at doing so in less than 1,000 words, so I’ll stick with an explanation of what Catholics believe and how we know it. If I had room, I would offer a defense; for now I can only offer an explanation.
Millennials, Mehta writes, are finding Christianity to be awfully silly. This seems to be a fairly common belief: Christianity was useful, say, back in the Dark Ages, before science, when people believed in elves. It’s unfair to caricature all of Christianity that way. It shows a thorough ignorance of the substance of Catholicism, the most authentic form of Christianity, which has been making consistent claims on faith and morality for about 2,000 years, despite being consistently unpopular. (Question: How did it last that long?)
“Pastors are no longer the final authority on the truth, and millennials know it.” – Mehta
Pastors aren’t the final authority on truth? Catholics never believed they were. I think most of us have heard the “mountain” analogy – different religions are different people’s paths up the mountain to God, and who’s to say that one path is better than another? This is a nice illustration, but misses the central claim of Christianity: God drove a bulldozer down the mountain, became man, “like us in all ways except sin” (cf St. Paul), and said, “Follow me.” We’re not claiming that our favorite path is the objectively best path to God; we’re claiming that the path God made for us and showed us is the best path to God. God, “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” is the final authority on truth. Our Church protects that truth and our pastors relate it.
“To believe in Jesus means believing that he was born of a virgin, rose from the dead and performed a number of miracles. There’s no proof of any of that ever happened…To be sure, if Christians followed the positive ideas Jesus had, we’d all be better off, but it’s very hard to separate the myth from the reality.” – Mehta
This is why it’s so difficult to separate Jesus’s resurrection (and all the other miracles) from his teaching. St. Paul notes this difficulty in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15): “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” Separating Jesus’s identity as God from his teaching is like separating numbers from math. If he isn’t God, if he didn’t actually rise from the dead, Christianity is stupid, a waste of time and energy, and the best hoax anyone’s ever come up with. Christianity isn’t just about “positive ideas.” It’s about a Creator God who entered into human history, who walked with human feet on the earth he created, and who showed us the way up the mountain.
I’ve been intending to give more of an explanation than a defense, because I simply don’t have room for both, but I wanted to comment on Mehta’s “there’s no proof” comment. The “proof” that we don’t have for the Resurrection is too much to ask of any historian about historical events. By the same token, we could say “there’s no proof” that Abraham Lincoln actually gave the Gettysburg Address, or that Alexander the Great ever existed. We have strong evidence, but no proof that it wasn’t all forged. Historical evidence for the Resurrection is actually fairly strong (as Mark Shea, Fr. Robert Barron, Jon Sorensen at Catholic Answers, and About.com explain), and if Jesus can rise from the dead, I don’t see anything stopping him from walking on water or turning it into wine. It would seem to back up his claim to be God, and that would back up his claims about what’s true and how we ought to live.
Catholics believe that God became man – Jesus – and it’s on his authority that we know what we know about God. Our popes, priests, saints, martyrs aren’t necessarily any smarter, wittier, or friendlier than anyone else. They don’t need to be, because it isn’t about them anyway. It’s about Jesus, and our pastors are just passing on the message.
I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from Pope Francis’s encyclical Lumen Fidei.
How can we be certain, after all these centuries, that we have encountered the “real Jesus”? Were we merely isolated individuals, were our starting point simply our own individual ego seeking in itself the basis of absolutely sure knowledge, a certainty of this sort would be impossible. I cannot possibly verify for myself something which happened so long ago. But this is not the only way we attain knowledge. Persons always live in relationship. We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others. Even our own knowledge and self-awareness are relational; they are linked to others who have gone before us: in the first place, our parents, who gave us our life and our name. Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’s love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others – witnesses – and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church.