Guest commentary / Catholic News Service

Commitment becomes a lost art, writes Tom Sheridan. It is regarded as a quaint practice among the young, for some of whom a tattoo may be the most permanent thing in life.

FOR TOO MANY young people (read: under 35), commitment is a quaint but unappreciated practice. They bound from career to career, relationship to relationship, project to project. It's not attention deficit disorder; it's fear of commitment. 

Once upon a time the gold watch of retirement was considered a worthy goal. Today it's an albatross. A long life of service in the fields of the Lord was commendable. Too often it's greeted today by a sad shaking of the head over opportunities missed. Commitment is a lost art.

Over the years I frequently questioned young journalism job-seekers with, "What do you expect to be doing in five years?" I wanted to hear that they sought to explore the breadth of this fascinating profession and rise to the top. Instead, many were quick to say they didn't anticipate remaining in the field long, as if that were admirable in a job candidate. It earned a scribbled note on their resume: "Lack of commitment."

The detrimental effects on society of this failure to commit ought to be obvious: Marriages are disposable, lifelong choices such as vocations to priesthood and religious life suffer, and even promising secular careers are truncated.

Who's to blame?

The older generation may as well admit to the cliché: We are. By the time my youngest - now 26 - was a teenager, she had few peers whose parents remained in their original relationships. She often came home with twisted tales of families with varying sets of grandparents and the resultant confusion.

But there's definitely more:

— Families lose community roots when they sail about the country on transfers or abrupt career changes.

— The public utterances of society's leaders — civil and, unfortunately, sometimes even religious — are too often words of convenience, crafted for the moment with no real sense of commitment to the truth.

— And what about broken promises and the "what's-in-it-for-me" message that prevail in politics and business?

That's been the experience of this uncommitted generation. Sometimes the most permanent thing is a tattoo.

When I began in the late 1970s to instruct new parents in the church's understanding of baptism, I reminded them that actions speak louder than words. Children have an innate ability, I warned, to do what we do, not what we say. And they certainly have done that, haven't they?

What's to be done?

It's unlikely the world suddenly will shift backward. Only fools plead for the return to the "good old days". Society has survived upheavals before. Wars, depressions and scientific and industrial shifts always have spurred change.

The church as institution often helped prop up society during such tectonic shifts. But this time, with marriage and religious vocations threatened, the church may seem like part of the problem. Still, if commitment can be turned from character flaw to value, the church must have a role.

Pope Benedict XVI told a group of German bishops recently that it's still the church's role to help young people return to a sense of stability in life. He said young people avoid commitment, whether to marriage or religious vocations, fearing it's "unfeasible and opposed to freedom".

For generations, such commitment wasn't only possible, but freeing and stabilizing. It may not look exactly the same as it once did, but it can be that again.

(Tom Sheridan is editor emeritus of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.)

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