Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Suburban Catholics (second draft)

This post has been re-edited. The first edition fell into all the infelicities of blogging: ranting, negativity, extreme statements. This time, I'll try to word it a little better.

I have often argued that the suburbs are not a natural place for Catholics. "We are a tenement people," I believe, meant for communities where we see our neighbors and where work and home are not so radically separate. Yet, my wife often points out, some of the best parishes and dioceses we know are in the suburbs.

We speak from our limited experience. We know Arlington, Virginia, in the suburbs of DC. Arlington diocese, where we lived one year and which we've often visited, is awesome. The people are orthodox, community is vibrant, the priests are great, liturgy is as good as it gets. We've also seen Boston: within the same archdiocese, the city is, for the most part, terrible, while the northern suburbs have some pretty decent parishes. Our experience suggests that the suburbs are better for Catholics.

Here are some preliminary ideas on how to reconcile our city ideals with our suburban experience.

Part of the conflict is probably socio-economic. The last hundred years of urban policy have been hard on our cities -- one of the goals of this blog is to argue for better urban policy. Urban parishes have so much more to struggle with. A solid priest in the suburbs can focus on rosary groups, men's groups, refurbishing the church, and fighting for good liturgy. A solid priest in the city, meanwhile, is often exhausted dealing with homelessness, crime, and poverty. Immigration may play into this, too. In the suburbs, immigrants have their own churches (with their own struggles); we who attend anglo churches don't see this. In the city, it often all gets mixed together, so that one priest is trying to serve not only rich anglos but also poor Hispanics, Islanders, French Africans, Eastern Europeans, etc. These are all things the church should be doing: but it certainly means that suburban parishes can do things that city parishes can't.

There are also some social issues. The suburbs, I would argue, are "voluntary" in a way the city isn't. City life is largely on foot, creating a much greater expectation that you go to your neighborhood church. Suburban life is largely in the car. You expect to drive to the things you like: drive to your favorite grocery store, your favorite restaurant, your favorite mall. Suburban car culture probably makes it seem more normal to go to the parish that fits you. So there are really orthodox suburban parishes and really unorthodox ones. They're all voluntary associations. You might say that Catholicism seems to thrive in the suburbs because it is more like Protestantism, with ideologically "sorted" churches.

In some places, this can even happen at the diocesan level. People who don't like the character of the Diocese of Arlington just cross the river and go to the Archdiocese of Washington. I've talked to plenty of people who do this. So even the dioceses get ideologically sorted.

Perhaps -- this is more of a stretch -- there is also an element of compartmentalization. One of my biggest concerns about the suburbs is that life gets so broken up: you work one place, and live in a totally different place. In the city, even if you commute, your home is surrounded by other people's work. I think there's more of a sense in the city that all of life interpenetrates.

It's possible that suburban churches "benefit" from compartmentalization. I'm pretty confident, from people I've talked to, that many of the pews in "fantastic" Arlington churches are filled with people who are not as fervent as the Church they attend. They are willing to be one thing on Sunday morning, and something else when they get home, just as they are one person at work and another person at home.

This comes out in the typical characterization of urbanites as combative. I think a big part of what people like about the suburbs is not having to fight. You go home to your fortress and what the neighbors are doing really doesn't affect you. In the city, the neighbors constantly affect you -- every conversation, every party, every time they play music -- and so you are used to struggling, speaking up, fighting. I'm not sure, but I can imagine this makes suburbia easier for priests. Possibly, urbanites, used to defending their turf, are also more inclined to fight for their parish, whereas suburbanites are more inclined to shrug their shoulders, knowing that the priest won't follow them home. Maybe.

But finally, there's probably a lot of simple chance. Most of America lives in suburbia (widely defined), and the cities are disproportionately filled with non-Catholic groups: Asians, blacks, Jews. In other words, if most Catholics live in the suburbs, you'd expect to find more good parishes -- and more bad parishes, and more of anything Catholic -- in the suburbs. And I think that's probably about right. Because the suburbs certainly have their share of bad parishes, too.