In a recent book, New Catholics for a New Century, Arthur Jones, an American analyst, makes an interesting comment. He says that when liberals and conservatives argue today in the church both try to claim Generation X (those who under 40 years of age) as an ally. Not a good idea, he suggests, because “Cardinal Ratzinger and Richard McBrien have more in common with each other and their experience of church than either have” with today’s Generation X.

That’s an insight worth highlighting because we haven’t recognized enough that a certain shared experience of church has been breaking down. Today’s young people, to a large extent, have had a fundamentally different experience of church than was had by those of us who are now over 45 years of age. There are some good things about this, they haven’t our hang-ups and neuroses, but there is a less positive underside, a certain “Catholic literary” is breaking down. What is meant by that?

Recently a woman, the mother of four young adults, shared with me this assessment of her own children. She’s a dedicated, highly-educated, Roman Catholic, fully complemented in this by her husband, and yet she has been, at least up to now, unable to impress into children her deep, cherished sense of God and church. Her children, while not particularly negative towards religious values are lackadaisical. Their attitude? Religion and church are a bit like world hunger, an issue that needs to be dealt with sometime, but, for now, other things (relationships, friends, plans, not to mention a bag of Doritos and a baseball game) mostly blot this out. She ended her assessment with the words: “What bothers me most is that they seem to have missed out on something our generation had, a certain Catholic literacy. They’re wonderful kids, but they aren’t literate in that old sense.”

“They aren’t literate in that old sense.” What this woman means is not so much that her kids don’t know the basics of the faith (although certainly that isn’t their strong point) but that a certain shared religious language and conversation hasn’t permeated their consciousness as it did her own when she was their age. For her generation, Catholicism wasn’t something you learned, it was something you breathed in. It was a family you joined and it, all of it, beauty and stain equally, showed on you like a birthmark, made you recognizable. Partly this was an intangible thing, a gnosticism of sorts, an inexplicable sense of something, a certain badge of mutual recognition, that cradle Catholics had but couldn’t explain (paralleled, I suspect, by most cradle Protestants, Orthodox, and Jews). Partly though it was something very tangible, a common experience that brought you inside a well-defined circle of conversation, understanding, and humour.

A theologian friend of mine, occasionally tries to explain this by using the analogy of a joke (which unfortunately can easily be taken out of context and misconstrued). When someone tells a joke, you either get it or you don’t. Most of us who were raised Catholic in the previous generation, like the woman I just quoted, “got it”. It, the sense of being Catholic, didn’t always come to us pure, we didn’t always agree with it, we didn’t always like it, and we didn’t always live it out, but we “got it”. And we could share it with everyone else, at least with those others who also “got it”, because they were with us inside of a common something, in a way that our kids no longer are. Joseph Ratzinger and Richard McBrien may not agree on a lot of things, but they have this immense thing in common, they both “got it”. They both understand Catholicism from the inside. They’re both part of the same literary circle.

No doubt, as already suggested, the same thing holds true within many Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues, a common literacy that they once had is breaking down. Generation X, for all its other moral and religious strengths, and it does have these, does not have this. Most of its members are no longer really literate within their own religious traditions. Moreover, this is a thing that cannot simply be remedied by more catechetical and theological studies. I know students, in various traditions, who have graduate degrees in theology, but have never quite “got it”, at least in the sense of which my theologian friend speaks. They still lack some essential literacy within their own traditions.

Why? Because this kind of literacy is not something you learn in graduate school. It’s something you absorb through you skin, beginning with your mother as she cradles you and begins to speak to you of God, and then extending through those countless hours of Sunday masses, Sunday school, Sunday services, family prayer, rosaries, catechism lessons, bible memorization, bible camps, and all those other religious events and conversations that together conspire to eventually bring you inside of one family that has a common heart, speaks a common language, and even has the same sense of humour.