Emotion to Empathy: How young people approach pro-life issues

October 17, 2017

There is a fairly good chance that if you are reading this newspaper you are aware of the Catholic Church’s passionate and unremitting stance on the dignity of life. Life is a gift, and the Giver is good. The majority of young people today know this perhaps even more instinctively then previous generations.

The young Church today belongs to what researches call “Generation Z,” which is generally said to include anyone who was born after 2000. Currently, this group makes up nearly 22 percent of the U.S. population.

On average, 41 percent of Generation Z attends church on a regular basis, which is significantly higher than the 19 percent of Millennials (Generation Y). While research on them is just beginning to flourish, Generation Z is being hailed as one of the most socially conscious and empathetic generations in recent history.

I have spent years working with this generation of young people and have seen first-hand the deep concern they have for all persons.

They do not just long to see people survive, but they want to see people thrive. There is no doubt they view themselves, the world and social issues through a different lens then the people who are educating and forming them.

When it comes to helping Generation Z to embrace the pro-life message of the Church a new methodology must be used. Generally, we seek to use one of two systems to influence the pro-life mentality of young people.

One system involves using straight forward facts, scientific knowledge and deduction which can come off as callous and cold.

The other system is emotionally driven and seeks to pull at the heart strings in order to gain a response. In and of themselves neither of these are bad, but they will have little success in convincing young people today.

The common definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Youth today do not want us to try and emotionally or cognitively convince them to be pro-life. Rather, they want to learn how to be a living witness to the Gospel of Life. Empathy is more than understanding the feelings of another; it is sharing in them.

Christ was our model in this approach. He did not just understand our human sufferings. He shared in them, so that He could glorify them.

As a Church, are we providing young people with an example of authentic witness which they can emulate? Do young people see in us the image of Christ and His unending love for all? More importantly, do we see that image in them?

I have learned how to be more empathetic from the young people I have been blessed to journey with over the years. They have taught me how to be more accepting of the immigrant. They have shown me how to support the pregnant woman who feels lost and alone. They have revealed to me the dignity of the poor, the marginalized, the young and the old.

Young people have shown me an example of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in word and deed. What lesson is the Lord trying to teach you through the witness of the young people in your parish and in your family?

Brian Henritze is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.