Millennial Missionaries

How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool

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Katherine Dugan
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While most headlines about Catholicism and millennials reveal skyrocketing rates of disaffiliation, there has also been a surge in the intensity of piety among a particular sect of young American Catholics. In Millennial Missionaries, Katherine Dugan provides a rich ethnographic study of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), an organization representative of this countervailing trend. Founded in 1998, FOCUS hires recent college graduates as missionaries serving on college campuses, seeking to stem the tide of disaffiliation by creating “dynamically orthodox” (ideologically conservative but culturally astute) Catholics.

Dugan conducted ethnographic and participant-observer fieldwork from 2012-2014 at six university campuses with a FOCUS presence, as well as several national trainings, conferences, and leadership summits. She deliberately confined her study to FOCUS missionaries, rather than the college students they evangelize. This choice sensibly narrows the scope of research to the missionaries’ formation in FOCUS’ worldview, although the occasional moments when Dugan describes their interactions with college students offer especially illuminating glimpses into their daily work.

Chapter 1 traces the “prehistory” of FOCUS and its origins. Dugan links the emergence of FOCUS to a number of historical trends: post-conciliar Catholic collaboration with Protestants (and the ensuing anxiety over Catholic exceptionalism); ongoing disputes over the identity of Catholic education; and the social mobility of American Catholics into the middle class throughout the 20th century.

Dugan takes prayer seriously as a practice that both expresses a worldview and inscribes it, and Chapters 2 and 3 examine devotional practices that shape missionary activity and identity. The prescribed prayer practices during daily “Holy Hour,” Dugan argues, “discipline [missionaries’] bodies, imaginations, and wills ... to enact their understanding of God’s will for their lives in keeping with FOCUS identity” (80). The relationships missionaries cultivate with Catholic saints, she observes, “remix devotionalism” in a manner distinctive to the millennial generation – reading and reshaping their own lives in conversation with hagiographies, aiming to “#besaints” themselves (96).

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the prescriptive gender roles foundational to the FOCUS model, and the way these interact in the distinctive dating culture the organization fosters. Participation in the explicitly designated roles of “feminine genius” and “authentic masculinity” seem central to FOCUS’ worldview and practice. Many FOCUS activities are segregated by gender, and in them, women are told to submit to men’s leadership as part of God’s design, while men learn that they should reciprocally submit to women’s needs. Dugan deftly analyzes the gendered assumptions undergirding this theology of mutual submission: women are understood to be emotional, men to be physical. These presuppositions inform the mandatory “dating fast” for first-year missionaries, and the subsequent marriage-oriented dating culture of chastity. Dugan’s analysis here is particularly sharp.

Chapter 6 unpacks what FOCUS calls the “dynamically orthodox” Catholic culture through the frame of SEEK2013, their national conference/retreat/rally. The conclusion ties these threads together with an eye towards the future—both the lives of missionaries after they leave FOCUS, and the organization’s broader impact on American Catholicism.

Millennial Missionaries surfaces several fascinating paradoxes at the core of FOCUS’ identity and practice. Missionaries define their message in opposition to prevailing cultural norms of gender and sexuality, while embracing millennial cultural means like memes, apps, and social media to communicate these stances. They directly borrow the prayer and evangelization practices of evangelical Protestants, while simultaneously asserting Catholic exceptionalism by doubling down on Jesus’ real presence in the sacraments. They encourage women to submit to “authentically masculine” leadership, but evangelize highly educated women and appoint female team leaders. Dugan holds these paradoxes in tension without overtly critiquing, allowing her readers to make their own judgments.

As both a sympathetic and critical ethnographer, Dugan is honest about her conflicted background with Catholicism and aware of its impact on her participant-observations. She continuously situates her research amidst the work of other ethnographers, historians, and theologians to contextualize the trends she identifies. Weaving this kind of bird’s-eye-view with anecdotes, interviews, and analysis helps Dugan to explain the on-the-ground phenomena she documents, and anchors her claims in a wider conversation.

I have few critiques of substance for Dugan’s work. The introduction contains an immense amount of information, which occasionally feels repetitive, but I had almost forgotten this after the tightly structured subsequent chapters and conclusion. The monograph also contains several sentences where a word or phrase appears to be missing – one would hope an editor would have caught these errors. But these are small stylistic quibbles in what is otherwise a rich and readable ethnography.

This book carries great value for any reader interested in the landscape of American religiosity and generational shifts in Catholic identity. Scholars of religious studies will find it a satisfying and well-constructed ethnography. I found Dugan’s work particularly provoking for the more explicitly confessional field of theology. The conversations occurring in Catholic theology departments at prestigious universities bear little resemblance in content or tone to the message of FOCUS, particularly regarding gender essentialism and sexual ethics. This disconnect is particularly dramatic given that FOCUS’ target audience is college students. Dugan’s research sharpened for me the vast discrepancy between academic and popular theology. While this discrepancy is certainly problematic for FOCUS’ efforts –Dugan notes “a loss of depth in what missionaries know and are able to teach about Catholic theology” as a “potential unintended consequence” (179) of the simplicity of their evangelization—it also challenges scholars of Catholic theology who find ourselves largely speaking past this swelling on-the-ground movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Kate Holman is a doctoral candidate and Teaching Fellow at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine Dugan is Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College, where she teaches courses on religion in the US, world religions, and global Catholicism.


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