Dugan, Katherine. 2019. Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool

Dugan, Katherine. 2019. Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Reviewed by Annie Blazer (College of William and Mary)

Katherine Dugan provides a window onto the lives of a small group of devout Catholic millennials. These young Catholics enthusiastically share their vision of a personally rewarding religious life that need not require isolation from popular culture. While much contemporary scholarship on young Catholics focuses on why young people are leaving the faith, Dugan asks: for those who stay, what does Catholicism mean to them? She ends up with an insightful picture of the vanguard of youth Catholicism that carries implications for the future of the tradition in the US.

Dugan conducted participant observation fieldwork from 2012-2014 with Catholic college students involved in FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), a fast-growing campus ministry based on the model of Cru (previously called Campus Crusade for Christ). She was present for devotional practices that shaped their daily lives from a morning Holy Hour spent in individual reflection to daily Mass to a weekly Power Hour for a special intention (for example, praying for sobriety in front of a Fraternity house). Through this fieldwork, Dugan noticed the work of prayer in this community is a method of not only interior reflection, but social development and communal life.

Millennial Missionaries is a welcome response to Christian Smith’s sociological work on emerging adults. Smith’s reliance on survey data results in an emphasis on mainstream and dominant trends.[1] As both Smith and the Pew Research Forum have noted, religiosity among US 18-29 year olds has been declining generationally and the group with the largest decline has been non-Hispanic Catholics.[2] Dugan doesn’t dispute this larger picture, but she gives us tools to think about devout millennial Catholics, a group missing from scholarship that focuses solely on the trajectory of the majority. Dugan makes the choice to focus on the emerging adult Catholics who have dedicated their lives to the project of missionizing college campuses. These are lay leaders devoted to reaching other millennials. Missing are the voices and experiences of those who are not attracted to this version of Catholicism (or to remaining Catholic at all). This population, though interesting to many scholars studying religiosity in decline, are not the point of Dugan’s scholarship.

Dugan uses her subjects’ devotional practices to organize her book. Following a chapter providing historical context, she delves into Holy Hour, devotion to saints, and gendered prayer practices. The last two chapters of the book examine how this prayerful life impacts millennial Catholics’ understanding of romantic relationships and US cultural identity. Of these chapters, the most interesting is chapter four on gendered prayer. Dugan describes how these devout Catholics practice gender specific prayer; women seek to inhabit the “feminine genius,” a way of being female that emphasizes intuitive social skills and nurturing behaviors, while men seek to cultivate “authentic masculinity,” a sense of self-discipline and humble leadership. Dugan points to an underlying uneasiness as Catholics coming of age in a culture that purports to value gender parity strive to hold to gendered hierarchies in ways that they see as authentically Catholic yet still in step with American cultural values.

This chapter sets the stage for the following chapter on dating and sex. As Dugan portrays this population, they are eager to get married and have a large Catholic family. Missionaries treat number of children as a good-humored competition; a goal of five or six is normal. In this chapter, Dugan spends some time discussing Natural Family Planning (NFP), the sanctioned approach to avoiding pregnancy by avoiding sex during ovulation that Dugan’s missionaries refuse to call birth control. Dugan mentions the Creighton model of tracking fertility cycles, and I wanted more information here. Are users of this method tracking basal temperature or are they examining cervical discharge? If this population of women are performing cervical swipes on themselves, they are likely more familiar with their sexual anatomy than many of their peers, and this would be interesting to further investigate.[3] Dugan does point out that many of her subjects are not yet married, so even though they are aware of NFP, they may not be practicing it themselves yet.

Dugan calls the millennial missionaries of FOCUS “dynamically orthodox.” This phrase might seem contradictory on its face—orthodoxy is about stability and preservation, whereas dynamism can be explosive and unpredictable. Dugan uses this contradictory concept to draw attention to the creative ways that these millennial Catholics work to preserve orthodoxy (for example, the male-only priesthood) while navigating their pop cultural and digitally saturated worlds with savvy (for example, hashtags and Spapchat). In this way, Dugan’s Catholics are dynamic and flexible when it come to their myriad tools and approaches to maintaining orthodoxy. The word “savvy” is doing a lot of work for Dugan as she continually returns to this term to describe her subjects. What I needed to hear from Dugan is what exactly is new about this. Were previous generations of Catholics so far removed from their popular culture contexts that they could not be called “savvy”? Or does this technological immersion actually matter for devotional development?

A central implication from Dugan’s work is that millennial Catholicism is beginning to look a lot like evangelical Protestantism. It seems to matter quite a lot that FOCUS intentionally models itself on evangelical ministries. The alignments that emerge between conservative Protestantism and Dugan’s millennial missionaries are firmly in the realm of the politics of family—opposition to abortion, preservation of patriarchy, and emphasis on marriage and child-bearing as part of God’s plan. A comparison that was missing from Dugan’s analysis was how these communities respond to sex and sexual abuse scandals. While evangelicals have had their share of infidelity and sexual predation scandals, the added requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests makes this issue a place where Catholic identity matters. Other than a very brief mention in the introduction that millennial missionaries’ sense of Catholicism has been shaped by “revelations of the sexual abuse crisis in the contemporary Church,” Dugan does not address this issue.[4] This was a missed opportunity to hear how the emerging generation of devout Catholic lay leadership respond to one of the largest challenges in American Catholicism.

This book will be useful to those interested in American youth culture and the shifting ground of contemporary Catholicism in the US. While there are a few missed opportunities, overall the portraits of young missionaries provide a level of depth missing from most scholarship on contemporary Catholic emerging adults. By taking readers into the daily devotional practices of millennial Catholic missionaries, Dugan makes a strong argument that prayer constitutes a transformational and generative ritual for this population. Similar to Susan Harding’s attention to fundamental Baptists “under conviction,” Dugan’s Catholics generate and re-generate their faith through daily individual and communal prayer.[5] This is a welcome contribution to literature on ritual, practice, and lived religion.


[1] Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Christian Smith, et al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] “Religion Among the Millennials,” Pew Research Center, February 17, 2010.

[3] See for example, Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (New York: Harper, 2016).

[4] Dugan, Millenial Missionaries, 16.

[5] Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).