Diversity: A Given for Millennials

Nearly every study of Millennials discovers that they assume diversity and prefer to associate with groups that express diversity. Diversity is a defining characteristic of this generation. While middle-aged believers have gloried in newly discovered ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue, racial or cultural diversity, and greater sexual tolerance, Millennials have never known the exclusions of the past. Thus, a group that does not express diversity in its membership and activities is not likely to attract Millennials.

Within my Midwest province of Capuchins, the difference is visible to me in how the generations approach racial and ethnic diversity. When I joined the Order in 1973, the province was a social catalyst working toward racial inclusion. Our focus was integration of African-American and Hispanic people within the dominant Anglo society. Millennials, whether within or outside of the Order, would likely frown when presented with such a limited (their perspective) vision of diversity. First, they would assume that diversity is a necessary present fact for modern life, not a goal toward which we are working.

Second, focusing our attention on such narrowly defined groups (African-Americans, Hispanic, Anglos) seems to betray the very concept of diversity. Millennials would ask where in that vision are the Asians and the African-Africans. But even identifying groups by continents causes a Millennial to squirm. Asians? Ask a Vietnamese and a Chinese if they think they share a common culture and you will quickly learn of the incredible breadth of ethnic and cultural diversity within each continent or race. How can Caribbean and more native Central Americans be lumped together as “Hispanics”? While one comes bouncing down the hallway hearing a rhythmic tune in her head, the other quietly enters a room looking down in a deferential and respectful manner. Then, what’s this “Africa” stuff? It’s as hard to count the tribes of Africa as the stars in a night-blue sky.

Millennial diversity finds its foundation in the belief that everyone is a source of truth and goodness. While the church can accept the millennial challenge to expand the notion of racial and ethnic diversity (something the Catholic Church does well), it has a harder time with such an expansive notion of truth. Christianity is a revealed religion that postulates a privileged source of unquestionable truth. It can neither be contradicted nor exceeded.

This is the point at which many church people confuse some of the findings about Millennials. Because there currently is a documented increase in the number of church vocations and young people are boldly visible in global events like World Youth Day, some assume that Millennials are more open to church. They are not. A Pew Study in 2010 found that 26% of Millennials claim no religious affiliation. That number has been steadily increasing.

However, there is a strong sub-group among Millennials who react to their generation’s prevailing notion of truth as having many sources. Among them are many with a strong interest in church, whose doctrines are viewed as an antidote to millennial relativity. So, why are there more church vocations over the past ten years? Because a strong and convicted sub-group of Millennials is more open to a church vocation than any group or sub-group has been for several decades. Still, most Millennials reflect the general generational approach to truth, and fewer church vocations continue to come from that majority.

This creates a stressful situation for many Millennials who pursue church vocations. Remember, no generalization of a generation is true of everyone. So, while many incoming church vocations will stridently advocate faithfulness to the magisterial church, there are other Millennials who have or want to consider a church vocation while holding a more relative or tolerant approach to truth. Thus, the stress within church communities on this matter is not just between generations; it is also found within the Millennial Generation itself. Vocation directors and formators ignore this fact with great peril.

While multiple approaches to truth are a general theme when talking about Millennials, sexuality presents a specific example of the tension. Prevailing millennial values are very tolerant about issues of sexual orientation, practices, and morals. These areas of life are relative and personal for most Millennials. This generational outlook is in deep conflict with traditional Catholic sexual morality and teaching, which is increasingly promoted after decades of benign neglect. It is an acute example of the more general tension Millennials will experience with and within most churches, but especially the Catholic Church with is well developed magisterial system.

I invite readers to comment on their observations of these dynamics within our own Capuchin province.