We live in a world that prides itself on allowing each person to have his or her own “truth,” a world where somehow, mysteriously, everyone can be in the right, all of the time, and there are no absolute or objective truths.
This idea is most commonly known as relativism, and Catholic theologians continue to strongly denounce it. Pope Benedict, then as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, stated in 2005 that “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”
As anyone who has ever been a teenager can attest, young people are particularly swayed by their egos and desires. Simply, they like to do what they want. As serious Catholics know, allowing our lives to be ruled by selfish impulses results in an emptiness that can only be filled by knowing and loving the Lord, who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). However, under the “dictatorship of relativism,” the youth of today fall into the comfortable, if unsatisfying, belief that everyone can be right and no one can be wrong.
Today, the relativistic beliefs of the young often persist into adulthood, while those who have strong convictions and stand up for them are seen as single-minded fundamentalists who need to become more “tolerant.”
In my role a youth minister and high school theology teacher, I hear the opinions of young people on a daily basis. Understandably, many young people object to the so-called difficult Church teachings on pre-marital sex, contraception, and even sacramental issues because they do not fully understand the reasoning behind the Church's positions. Young people need to be told, boldly and unapologetically, the effects of buying into the world's empty promises, and the real and true happiness that comes from following Christ, but in an approachable way that they can understand.
However, sometimes I find that boldly proclaiming the truth is easier said than done. Working with teenagers is a difficult balance of relating with them and their experiences, “engaging the culture,” and giving them the truth that they really need to hear. It is easy to get caught up with forming friendships with the youth and come dangerously close to forgetting the purpose of our work. I've formed great relationships with the teens in my youth group, but calling them out on real issues has yet to become my strong suit, especially when so many young people believe that moral absolutes are a matter of opinion.
Recently, a discussion on the importance of attending Sunday Mass came up at a youth group meeting. A girl mentioned to me that she rarely attended Sunday Mass. She gave the timeless excuses of being too busy, not having a ride, and never going with her family. Since Sunday Mass is a non-negotiable issue for Catholics, missing it for anything other than a grave reason is a mortal sin. But, as I looked back into the excited face of a girl who had been diligently attending youth group, Bible study, and helping to lead retreats, I was faced with the almost insurmountable challenge of calling her out on it.
Very few people actually enjoy telling people they care about that they are objectively wrong about an opinion or a practice, especially when our culture tells us that disagreeing with someone on a moral issue makes us intolerant. We're afraid of rejection, of doing more harm than good in telling someone the truth. After a few deep breaths, I told my young friend, firmly, that if she was serious about living a Christian life she had to go to Confession and start going to Sunday Mass every week.
Although I did not enjoy this conversation, God knew what he was doing when He told us, through the words of St. Paul, to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
My young friend is not only attending Sunday Mass every week, but started bringing her family members, and goes to daily Mass before school whenever she can. In my human weakness, and fear of rejection, I was so afraid of what my youth group teen would think of me, that for a second I lost sight of who I am doing this for. Pope Benedict tells us, “Do not be afraid to talk of God and to manifest without fear the signs of faith, letting the light of Christ shine in the presence of the people of today.”
This especially applies to parents of teenagers and those who work with young people. Teens are faced with the lies of the world every single day. We cannot be afraid to tell them what they need to hear, motivated by love, and convicted by the truth found in the person of Jesus Christ.