Journalist Colleen Carroll on a Surprising Trend
WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 29, 2003 (ZENIT)
The growth of evangelical "mega-churches" has long been a
focus of media attention.
Much less noted has been the embrace of traditional Christianity by
Generation X and the rejection of the religious and cultural values of
that generation's parents, the baby boomers.
A Gen-X journalist, Colleen Carroll, set about to document this trend.
The result was a highly acclaimed book, "The New Faithful: Why
Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy" (Loyola Press).
Carroll described the phenomenon of "the new faithful" in an
interview with ZENIT.
Q: How did you ever launch upon this project of finding out about
"the new faithful"?
Carroll: I first saw signs of the trend toward orthodoxy in the
mid-1990s, when I was a student at Marquette University. The students
there were not necessarily of the "new faithful" mold, but
they also defied the "cynical slacker" stereotype of
Generation X. Many had an almost visceral attraction to God, the Church,
Later, as a young newspaper journalist, I continued to see a disparity
between media portrayals of my generation and the young adults that I
saw all around me. Not all young adults are attracted to orthodoxy, but
a growing number are seeking truth and embracing a demanding practice of
Their stories were not being told in the mainstream media, and many
religion experts seemed to be tone deaf to their voices. So, with the
help of a grant from the Phillips Foundation and a book contract from
Loyola Press, I set out to explore this trend and tell their stories.
Q: Is this "new faithful" phenomenon a part of the new
springtime in the Church?
Carroll: Yes, I believe the new faithful are at the heart of the
Church's new springtime and are a driving force behind the new
evangelization. I interviewed a mix of young Catholics, Protestants and
Orthodox Christians for "The New Faithful."
The Catholics I interviewed certainly stand at the forefront of renewal
in the Catholic Church. They are committed to spreading the Gospel—a
commitment instilled in many of them by their hero, Pope John Paul II.
Q: Who are the new faithful? Did they have any previous religious
Carroll: As I mentioned earlier, the New faithful come from
denominations across the Christian spectrum, though most are Catholics
or evangelicals. They range in age from about 18 to 35. They are united
by firm, personal, life-changing commitments to Jesus Christ.
Their religious backgrounds vary. Many grew up in secular homes or
fallen-away Catholic homes. Many others were raised in evangelical or
mainline Protestant churches or Catholic parishes. Nearly all of them
faced a reckoning in young adulthood that forced them to decide if they
would make following Christ the central concern of their lives or not.
These young adults have chosen to take Christianity seriously, and have
decided that embracing Christian orthodoxy is the way to do that. Their
faith commitments have led them to make countercultural decisions about
everything from who and how they date to which careers they pursue and
which political causes they embrace.
Q: Your title suggests that the new faithful are embracing Christian
orthodoxy. Does that mean Catholicism?
Carroll: The orthodoxy embraced by "The New Faithful" is a
small "o" orthodoxy that encompasses more than one
denomination. Many, many Catholics have embraced an orthodox practice of
their faith, and my book focuses a great deal of attention on them. But
this trend crosses denominational borders.
To draw boundaries for this book, I borrowed a definition from G.K.
Chesterton, who said orthodoxy means "the Apostles' Creed, as
understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short
time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a
creed." Or, as one young man told me, "orthodoxy means you can
say the Apostles' Creed without crossing your fingers behind your
Q: Are the new faithful receiving good catechesis? From where are they
receiving such teaching?
Carroll: Yes and no. Most of the New faithful, particularly the
Catholics in this group, did not receive good catechesis as children.
Many were raised by parents who did not know or teach the faith. Many
others attended Catholic schools and parishes where they learned
"God is love"—and little else.
These twenty- and thirty-something Catholics grew up in the years after
Vatican II, when the American Church was still struggling to make sense
of the changes. They suffered the effects of a religious education
crisis, and many never learned even the most elementary Christian
The good news: Many young adults have taken it upon themselves to learn
the faith and study Church teaching, by forming parish groups to study
Scripture, the Catechism, or the teachings of the Holy Father. And many
have benefited from the new boom in Catholic apologetics materials and
the rise of such popular apologists as Scott Hahn.
The Catholic apologetics craze—driven in large part by the
catechetical demands of this generation—reflects the deep and
widespread hunger for truth among today's young Catholics.
Q: What aspects of Catholicism did the new faithful feel drawn to? Why
have they chosen the Church or Christian orthodoxy rather than the New
Age spiritualities the Church recently
Carroll: The New faithful Catholics are drawn to precisely those aspects
of Catholicism that repelled many of their baby boomer elders. They love
Church tradition and history. They relish devotions like the rosary, and
they line up for confession in droves. They are committed to eucharistic
adoration and evangelization. And they love the Pope—not simply
because they admire his personality, but because they admire his
commitment to defending the truth in season and out of season.
These young Catholics grew up in a society saturated with moral
relativism and dominated by the idea that they should "do whatever
feels good." They see orthodoxy as a fresh alternative to those
values, an oasis of truth and stability in a world gone mad.
While many of their elders criticize Church teaching as rigid or
retrograde, these young adults love the Church's time-honored teachings
and countercultural stands. To them, it is New Age spirituality—not
orthodox Catholicism—that's empty, boring, and yesterday's news.
Q: What factors within the culture and the larger society do you think
gave rise to the new faithful?
Carroll: The rise of the new faithful is partly the result of a pendulum
swing. Many of these young adults are the sons and daughters of the
hippies, children of the flower children. These young adults think that
authority and tradition make more sense than free love and no-fault
Many suffered ill consequences from baby boomer experimentation in
morality and religion, and they want their own children to experience a
more stable life. They crave stability for themselves, as well. But
sociology only gets us so far in this analysis. In the end, each of
these young adults tells a story far richer, and far more complex, than
the story of the pendulum swing.
I met doctors, lawyers, Hollywood writers, and cloistered nuns who told
me amazing conversion stories, stories of faith and hope and a love that
reached out and grabbed them when they least expected to find God.
For a Christian, the only way to understand those stories is to take
these young adults at their word, and judge God by his works, and see
this as the amazing grace of the Holy Spirit being poured out on a
generation once considered lost.
Q: Do you have any sociological data to back up your findings? How
widespread is this phenomenon of the new faithful and why is it largely
found among young, educated, professional people?
Carroll: The book overflows with statistics—from the Gallup poll that
shows a growing number of teen-agers identifying themselves as
"religious" instead of "spiritual but not
religious," to the UCLA freshmen poll that shows approval for
abortion and casual sex dropping year after year. This trend has not
swept over the entire generation, of course.
The new faithful still constitute a fairly modest segment of the
population. But their influence extends well beyond their numbers
because so many of these new faithful are educated professionals with a
disproportionate amount of cultural influence.
They are rising stars in politics, the arts, the entertainment industry,
in medicine and law and journalism. They are the sort of bright,
culturally engaged young adults that their peers tend to follow. And
they are uniting—across denominational lines, in many cases—to bring
the Gospel to every realm of American life that they touch.
Q: Do you see this phenomenon continuing for the foreseeable future?
Carroll: This phenomenon is on the rise, and for the reasons mentioned
above, it has considerable room to grow and serious staying power.
As this movement grows, the new faithful will be tempted to fall into
extremes of either isolation from the culture or capitulation to it.
Both extremes could undermine this movement and hamper the spread of the
Gospel by these believers. Those who want to be "salt and
light" in the world will have to keep those dangers in mind, and
strive to be "in the world, but not of the world."
Q: How has the secular media responded to your findings? Has your book
received much attention outside of Christian media?
Carroll: The secular media has given this book a good deal of attention,
which has been gratifying. "The New Faithful" has been
featured in the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post,
National Review, PBS, Canada's National Post, and dozens of other
regional newspapers and secular radio outlets.
Many secular journalists still struggle to understand this trend: It's
counterintuitive for those who assume religion is on the wane and
orthodoxy is on life support.
But to their credit, a fair number of baby boomer journalists in the
secular media have been willing to consider that the excesses of their
generation may have made today's young adults reluctant to follow in
their footsteps, and attracted those young adults to orthodoxy.