Young Adults, Identity, Community, and Purpose: An Interview with Elise Italiano

In the days leading up to the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Elise Italiano, the founding executive director of the GIVEN Institute, on young adults and the Church:

You and Christopher White have a series at Catholic News Service that provides a forum for young adult Catholics to write about millennials and the Church. Do you see certain threads running through these articles, in terms of some shared goals and experiences? Have you learned anything or has anything surprised you in developing and editing this series?

We initiated the series with the hope of providing another opportunity for young adults to be heard by the U.S. Bishops ahead of the Synod. Many American dioceses encouraged young people within their jurisdiction to respond to the Vatican’s online surveys. We hoped that these columns would bring those responses to life through first-person testimonies.

After reviewing the contributions from our columnists for more than a year, I’d say that while young adults closely watch how their bishops respond to significant cultural, political, and ecclesial developments—and we’ve certainly had our fair share of them since the column started —they are primarily concerned with experiencing closeness, compassion, and concern from their shepherds. They want to know if bishops and Church leaders understand the circumstances in which they are coming of age, with all of the opportunities and challenges they face.

Our columnists shared pretty significant anxieties related to everything from financial burdens to loneliness to raising young children. At the same time, they generally seemed to hold out hope for a more promising future. By and large they crave an experience of authentic community and the support of mentors. They want to find both of these things in the Church, and they are ready to take on leadership roles alongside of bishops and pastors to make sure future generations have them.

At the Georgetown conference on polarization in June, you talked about the way that polarization and internal squabbling are distracting from the grave situation that the Church faces when it comes to young adults and the culture that is shaping their lives. Why are our peers being “carried out in spiritual body bags,” as you say?

I spent six years teaching high school theology to young women and spent several years interacting with college students through my work in public relations at a university.  From what I’ve witnessed, young people today have more choice and possibility, greater access to information and opportunity to connect with people than ever before.

Yet many of them are sad. They report feeling lonely and isolated. Suicide rates and addictions are at an all-time high. Young people are hungry for authentic connection, but there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities to experience real community in the flesh. They know that consumerism and instant gratification don’t satisfy, but they can’t quite put their finger on what will.

Our Church leaders and commentators spend an enormous amount of time engaged in inside-baseball ecclesial battles.  When the Church looks inward for such a sustained period of time, it risks failing to take note of the people it’s supposed to be serving and to understand their reality.

For example, there has been a sustained, ongoing dispute amongst theologians and commentators about Chapter 8 in Amoris Laetitia.  Getting theology right certainly matters. But it can’t be all-consuming, especially because a generation of young adults is delaying or foregoing marriage altogether.  When we stay focused on the footnote alone, we risk putting energies into the necessary work of re-proposing marriage as a good to a generation which is highly skeptical of its possibility in the first place.

Many people in the Church still employ an evangelical strategy that presumes a certain level of catechesis, or acceptance of anthropological claims, or an understanding of theological vocabulary. I think it’s time to evaluate those presumptions and opt for a new strategy.

How can the Church—its leaders and everyday Catholics—slow or reverse this trend?

Today’s young people need a Church that is going to set aside the ecclesial divisions and help them learn what it means to be human. They need to know that there’s a God who loves them.  I think there’s a fear that if the Church were to get back to the basics of the Gospel, that we’d be forfeiting important theological nuances or points of emphasis that need to be worked out. But I think a return to the sources is a good idea. A culture that’s saturated by secularism is a culture that will eventually begin to crave something more. We need to approach our neighbors as if anything we tell them about the Gospel is their first encounter with its message.

What would you like to see coming out of the Synod on Young People?

I hope the Synod Fathers focus on three themes: identity, community, and purpose. Every young person is searching for the answers to the following questions: Who am I? Who do I belong to? Do I have something to contribute? The Church proposes that Jesus Christ is the answer to every human life. I’d like to see those present examine how well we are helping people know their identity in Christ; how well our parishes, campus ministries, and diocesan offices are fostering real community in which people feel that they are cared for; how well we are doing with helping people to discover that they have a unique, God-given mission that no one else can fulfill. I hope it’s an honest, humble, and hopeful assessment of how we’re doing.

How does the renewed focus on sexual abuse and cover-ups by the Church’s hierarchy affect the Church’s mission here in the US?

This summer pulled back the curtain on a great deal of darkness that was and is lurking in the Church.  In one sense, it has shed further light on the fact that the Church must be a “field hospital” to a critical, vulnerable population – persons who have been abused by clergy. The difficulty is that the Church was complicit in their vulnerability, and so the work of healing must be careful, steady, and thorough.  As our time and attention is rightfully drawn to serving them, our attention to other urgent matters will be divided. This will affect the populations the Church was serving this summer – migrant families at the U.S. Mexico-Border, young adults ahead of the Synod, and the on-going work to protect the unborn and support their mothers. My hope is that instead of giving into despair, Catholics will find renewed conviction and a sense of urgency and take up the task of protecting life and dignity in whatever corner God has called them to work in.

What is GIVEN and why is it needed? 

The GIVEN Institute (“GIVEN”) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to activating the gifts of young adult women for the Church and the world. We inspire and equip the next generation of female leaders to “receive the gift that they are; realize the gifts they’ve been given; and respond with the gift that only they can give.”  Through leadership training, faith formation, and dedicated mentoring, GIVEN forms women for mission and for life.

The flagship event of the GIVEN Institute is the Catholic Young Women’s Leadership Forum. The event (to take place every 2 years) will bring together a diverse group of young adult women from across the country for a multi-day forum. It is designed for young adult Catholic women seeking leadership training, faith formation, and support to better understand and pursue their particular mission and/or vocation. Emerging leaders will have the opportunity to hear from and be mentored by leading Catholic women in both ecclesial and secular fields.

GIVEN was formed to serve young adult Catholic women, who are an underserved though critical demographic marked by a search for identity, community, and purpose. GIVEN’s programming is designed for women between the ages of 21-30, who are navigating a period of time between college graduation and vocational commitment or professional clarity.

There is a growing number of highly educated, talented young adult women who are looking to make this period of their lives fruitful and purposeful, who want to know that their gifts are needed.  GIVEN will identify, equip, and position these women to find a meaningful path for this period, one which also opens up possibilities for their future and enables them to find ways to put their gifts in service to the Church and the common good.

Many excellent corporate leadership development programs do exist; however, growth in leadership is often framed as something in tension or at odds with other vocational responsibilities. There are many Catholic ministries and apostolates which provide faith formation to women, but few, if any, explicitly invest in their leadership development.

GIVEN will bring together these elements of leadership development, faith formation, and mentorship to provide a comprehensive and transformative personal investment in the lives of future Catholic women leaders.

By investing in this demographic, the Church is also making an investment in its future. Throughout the course of this summer, many commentators noted that an incisive presence of faithful, skilled women would help the Church in its renewal and reform. But it’s also a matter of urgency for the life and mission of the Church.

The distinct phenomena of the disaffiliation of young adult women, an aging population of religious sisters, and a culture which undervalues marriage and family life will soon converge. From its earliest days, women have been the backbone of the life and mission of the Church. This is a critical time for the Church to inspire and equip the next generation of Catholic women leaders to put their gifts in service of the Gospel.

The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe and Its Lessons for Today: An Interview with Daniel K. Williams

What was the pro-life movement like before Roe v. Wade? In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams, history professor at the University of West Georgia, provides an essential overview of the pro-life movement in this period. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Williams on his groundbreaking book and its implications:

The pro-life movement is often associated with conservatism, but could you talk a little bit about the roots of the movement?

The modern American pro-life movement, which originated in the mid-twentieth century, was the creation of Catholic Democrats, most of whom subscribed to the social ethic and liberal political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  They believed that the government had a responsibility to protect the rights of minorities and provide a social safety net for the poor.  They viewed the unborn as a minority deserving of legal protection, but many of them also believed that the federal government had a responsibility to provide maternity health care for women facing crisis pregnancies.  In their view, the pro-life movement was a social justice and human rights cause. Read More

Building an Economy that Serves and Uplifts the Vulnerable: An Interview with Eric LeCompte

Eric LeCompte is the executive director of Jubilee USA. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his work to address global inequality and build an economy that serves all persons, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

What does Jubilee USA do?

Ahead of the Jubilee Year, when Christian churches were preparing to celebrate the 2000th Anniversary of Christ’s birth, global religious leaders called us to celebrate by tackling the root causes of poverty. Pope John Paul ll encouraged us to reflect on the true scriptural meaning of Jubilee during the Church’s Jubilee 2000 celebration. Jubilee is a central them in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Jubilee story starts in Genesis. God loves us so much that God created a resource rich world for us to share in seven days. We are closest to the Creator when we are sharing those resources amongst us. Then we have the early law books of scripture that attempt to legislate how we live according to Jubilee laws. Deuteronomy and Leviticus lay out how we can be in right relationship with one another and our God. They dictate that every seven years we should forgive debts, let the land rest, and set free slaves. They establish a set of laws that protect all of us from having too little or too much. Then the prophets come to remind the people they are no longer living according to the laws of Jubilee. And then in Luke, in the first public act of our Lord, He reads from Isaiah ‎about setting captives free and proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor or the great Jubilee year. This is seven times seven years where there is a restoration of equality among all of God’s people.

From the call of Pope John Paul ll and other faith leaders, the Catholic Church took on an incredible leadership role to win debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and move forward greater protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

That’s the story of how Jubilee USA started as an interfaith coalition of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to address the structures that cause poverty and inequality. To this day, we take on US and global policies on debt, tax, trade, and transparency issues. When we address these issues, we impact millions of people living in poverty in the US and across our world. From resolving Puerto Rico’s financial crisis to corporate transparency to student debt, Jubilee USA wins solutions that impact our global community. Ultimately, we are building an economy that serves, protects, and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.

Congressional Quarterly cites our interfaith efforts as the last successful bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill.

What are some of the accomplishments that Jubilee USA has achieved?

We’ve won more than $130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest economies. Because of the US and global agreements we’ve won, that $130 billion is invested in schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. In Sub Saharan Africa alone, 54 million kids have gone to‎ school who never would have seen the inside of a classroom. Recently, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank President, cited Jubilee’s efforts as the reason for economic growth in parts of Africa.

Debt and financial crises‎ often affect the most vulnerable in the most extreme ways. It’s tragic that the global financial crisis punished those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis. Nearly 100 million people, mostly women and children, were cast into extreme poverty because of the crisis. Beyond debt relief, Jubilee USA transforms the debt, tax, and trade policies that cause poverty and inequality. For every 10 dollars in aid developing economies receive, they lose more than150 dollars from debt payments, tax evasion, and corruption.

In the last few years, here are some of the strategic campaigns we’ve won:‎ debt relief in Haiti and the 3 Ebola-impacted West Africa countries, a new International Monetary Fund trust fund to aid poor countries struck by disasters, multiple anti-corruption measures impacting low income countries, ‎super bankruptcy legislation for Puerto Rico‎, three international agreements to promote responsible lending and stop predatory lending, two victories to keep student loan interest rates low, G7 and G20 agreements to curb tax evasion and corruption, pushing trade agreements‎ that help end poverty, and securing zero interest loans for poor communities. Read More

Chen Guangcheng on the Death of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Millennial‘s Daniel Petri interviews Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng on the death of his friend and fellow activist Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the future of the Chinese democracy and human rights movement:

Read more about Liu Xiaobo’s life and death (via NY Times):

Liu Xiaobo, the renegade Chinese intellectual who kept vigil at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protect protesters from encroaching soldiers, promoted a pro-democracy charter that brought him a lengthy prison sentence and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while locked away, died under guard in a hospital on Thursday. He was 61….

The police in China have kept Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest and smothering surveillance, preventing her from speaking out about Mr. Liu’s belated treatment for cancer.

“Can’t operate, can’t do radiotherapy, can’t do chemotherapy,” Ms. Liu said in a brief video message to a friend when her husband’s fatal condition was announced. The message quickly spread online.

Mr. Liu’s illness elicited a deluge of sympathy from officials, friends, Chinese rights activists and international groups, who saw him as a fearless advocate of peaceful democratic change.

Building a Bridge Between the Church and the LGBT Community: An Interview with Fr. James Martin

This month, Fr. James Martin released Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, called it “a welcome and much-needed book that will help bishops, priests, pastoral associates, and all church leaders, more compassionately minister to the LGBT community.” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said it “provides us the language, perspective, and sense of urgency to undertake the arduous but monumentally Christlike task of replacing a culture of alienation with a culture of merciful inclusion.”

Christopher White has a good interview with Fr. Martin at Crux, and Jesuitical has another good one—which together provide a helpful overview of the central themes in the book. Below, you can find Millennial editor Robert Christian’s interview with Fr. James Martin on some key issues from the book and other issues the book raises:

So many millennials have grown up with friends or family members who are openly gay and the treatment of these friends and family members is very important to them, as of course, it deeply matters to gay, lesbian, and transgender young people. What do you think the type of bridge building that you describe in the book would mean for millennials (in general) and their relationship with the Church?

What you described is one of the most surprising things for me, as I gain more experience with LGBT ministry.  First of all, the more people who are open about their sexuality and identity, the more Catholics will be impacted—families and friends of LGBT people.  So it’s a much broader issue than I had imagined.

But the other surprise has been precisely what you describe: for most millennials the question of LGBT acceptance is virtually a non-issue.  Most millennials I know say, “Of course I accept them!  Of course I love them!  Of course they belong in the Church!”  And they are often appalled at the language they hear coming from church officials.  Some of them have told me that one reason they’ve left the Church is over this topic—even if they’re straight.  So the bridge that I describe—bringing together LGBT Catholics and the institutional church—is for some of them the last causeway to the Church.  Otherwise, they don’t want to be a part of a church that they feel is either homophobic or in any way unwelcoming.

How should the bishops respond to the far-right groups that hunt down gay employees at Catholic institutions in order to pressure these institutions to fire them?

First of all, I’m clear in the book that I don’t think church organizations should be firing LGBT employees.  For the simple reason that the requirement to adhere to Church teaching seems to be applied only to them.  We don’t fire divorced and remarried Catholics who have not gotten annulments, or women who have children out of wedlock, or people who use birth control, which are all against Church teaching.  The question of adherence to Church teachings is enforced in a highly selective way, which is, to my mind, a sign of what the Catechism calls “unjust discrimination.”

And regarding the far-right groups that, as you rightly say, “hunt down” LGBT employees?  I think the bishops should ignore them.  These groups, often very minuscule in terms of membership, are usually less concerned about an overall application of Church teaching—after all, when did they hunt someone down for not serving the poor, for not being forgiving, for not being a loving person?—than with simply ferreting out and persecuting LGBT people.   I find their tactics reprehensible.

I think you make a very persuasive case for using terms like gay and lesbian rather than more formal terms “homosexual persons,” but should there be limits to how much the Church—from its pastors to its formal documents—affirms the use of other terms like pansexual or polysexual? At any point does a certain expressive individualism, in terms of boundaryless self-identification, collide with the Church’s understanding of the nature of the human person in a way that merits drawing distinctions among the various terms used in the LGBT community?

That’s a good question.  Our most fundamental identity is as beloved children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church.  All of that precedes sexual identity and orientation.  As for the use of particular terms, I know this is a hotly contested question.  The acronym LGBTQ seems to change almost weekly.  In fact, just last night I asked a gay man and a lesbian woman about this phenomenon and they both said, “We can’t keep up with all the changes.” So we are seeing a revolution in the way that people understand and identify themselves.  But nothing of the human experience should be foreign to the Church, and so the Church needs to meditate deeply on this aspect of human experience.  At the same time, our fundamental identities as children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church need to be held onto.

But I’ll be honest: I don’t think I understand enough about the fluidity of sexuality, or the ins and outs of psychology, or the current terminology, to be able to pronounce on that question with any confidence. My basic attitude though is that when confronted with something you don’t understand in a person’s life, you are called to listen to their experiences, see it in the light of the Gospels and Church teaching, and then come to some understanding of how to accompany this person.  But first comes listening.

Same sex marriage is now a fundamental issue for the LGBT community. Does the Church’s position on it create a wall that makes certain bridge building impossible or extremely difficult to achieve?

Not as I see it.  You’re correct in saying that this is a barrier to bridge building.  The institutional church and much of the LGBT community are miles apart on this.  The same is true for the Church’s prohibition on same-sex relations (that is, the Church’s teaching on sexual activity between people of the same sex).  For the Church, it is simply impermissible, for the LGBT community, simply a given.

So yes, it’s something of a barrier.  But I prefer to focus on the areas of commonality: the desire to conform one’s life to Christ, the desire to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, the desire for Christian community.  And the first steps I’m asking for, “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” virtues outlined in the Catechism, call mainly for an open heart.  That’s something I think everyone can carry along, as they walk along the bridge.

The call for the Church to do more about violence directed at people in the LGBT community, in places like Chechnya and Uganda, for instance, and the bullying, depression, and suicide rates here in US seems like a critical starting point. In practical terms, what can the Church—its people and the hierarchy—do on these issues?     

First of all, speak up.  The Gospels impel us to stand with those who are being persecuted in any way.  I don’t know how much clearer Jesus could be: he sided with those who were on the margins.  Catholic social teaching urges us to understand the meaning of “solidarity.”  And the Catechism asks us to resist any forms of “unjust discrimination” directed against LGBT people.  So in places where LGBT people are being actively persecuted, the Church should stand with them, publicly.  Other issues can clearly be seen in the light of Church teaching.  What is suicide among gay teens other than a “life issue”?

So we need to make LGBT people feel visible and valuable. We need to let them know that they are beloved children of God who are as much a part of the church as the pope, their local bishop, and me.  We need to listen to them and enter the mystery of their lives.  We need to accompany them.  We need to stick up for them when needed.  We need to be compassionate to them.  And we need to let them evangelize us.  In a word, we need to love them.

Millennial’s Interview with Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego

At last month’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies conference on erroneous autonomy, Bishop Robert McElroy warned of “the growing imperialism of market mechanisms,” the technocratic paradigm, and populist nationalism. Bishop McElroy took a few minutes away from the conference to answer some questions from Millennial writer Daniel Petri on his speech and his analysis of contemporary American politics:

Climate Change Kills: An Interview with Nicholas Kristof

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently traveled to Madagascar to cover southern Africa’s drought and food crisis. In a powerful video and article, Kristof explains the link between climate change and starvation, while highlighting the important work being done by organizations like Catholic Relief Services. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his article and this issue:

Climate change has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and other environmental issues like pollution kill millions of people each year, but many seem to only think about polar bears or people hugging trees when they think about these issues. Your powerful video and article link starvation and climate change, showing the impact on real, vulnerable people. Do you think this type of storytelling can wake people up and shift some of these narratives and perceptions?

I hope so—that’s why I go to places like Madagascar, and bring video journalists. But it really is difficult to get people to engage in these issues far away, and I think images and real people’s stories are the best strategy to build that engagement.

What would you say to those who are skeptical that a direct link can made between climate change and dire humanitarian situations like the one you covered this week?

It’s true that it’s difficult to link any one event to climate change. Mostly we know that climate change causes more severe weather, including droughts, and makes extreme weather more likely, but it can be difficult to know that any one episode is the result of carbon emissions. In this case, we have meteorologists in a professional journal that I linked to who conclude that this drought is likely linked to climate change. But in general I’d emphasize that climate change increases risks of disasters, and we should try to reduce such risks.

Conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere accept the scientific consensus on climate change and favor action to combat it, while the Republican Party is a global outlier in terms of the strength of denialism among its elected officials. Part of the explanation may be that many conservative parties in Europe have been influenced by Catholic social teaching and the notions of responsibility toward creation that are integral to Christian Democracy, while American conservatism lacks that influence and tradition, having stronger philosophical roots in Social Darwinism, for instance. Given the interests of those who oppose action on climate change, along with these strong libertarian and extreme individualist currents in American conservatism, is there any reason to believe that Republicans might become more responsible like conservative parties in many other countries?

Attitudes can change, as we’ve seen with same-sex marriage, and I think the same will happen with climate change. As the evidence accumulates, as beach homes watch out to sea and catastrophes are reported abroad, I think political pressure will mount on the denialists.

As a pro-life progressive (who identifies as whole life), I consider food security and environmental issues to be profoundly important pro-life issues, as they involve injustices that kill millions of people of all ages each year. But many other people in the pro-life movement prefer to focus exclusively on unborn children. Do you think that the impact of climate change and malnutrition on children in utero, something you discuss in the article, can serve as a bridge to the pro-life movement, perhaps finding new ways to reach people who identify as pro-life and helping to build broader coalitions to tackle issues like poverty, food insecurity, and environmental degradation?

That’s an excellent idea, although it’s one that secular liberals are wary of, for fear of advancing a traditional pro-life agenda. But the evidence is overwhelming, from the Dutch Hunger and other episodes, that prenatal conditions have lifelong effects. My own view is that we should avoid climate disasters largely because of the effects on the living, but the impact on the unborn is real and will affect future generations.

You talked a little bit about the work you saw Catholic Relief Services doing. Could you describe the impact of some of their programs? Should Catholics be proud of the work this organization is doing in Madagascar?

CRS does excellent work in Madagascar, alleviating famine and also trying to help people adjust to a new climate—such as training farmers to try fishing. I’ve also seen CRS in other parts of the world and have always been impressed with its work. It has been a pioneer, for example, in promoting microsavings programs for women. So Catholics should definitely be proud of the work of CRS and of its sister organization, Caritas.