We need to think about the renewal of parish of life.
Since the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the laity’s call to holiness was paired with the renewal of virtue ethics in moral theology, everyone seems to recognize not only the importance of community for forming people in the Christian life but also the necessity of this formation for addressing the problems we face in our age. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre believed we needed communities to address the incoherence of modern moral discourse. Stanley Hauerwas claimed it is needed to respond to the challenges raised by the Enlightenment and liberal democracy. Jean Porter held that communities are necessary to understand the good and natural law, Richard Gaillardetz to stave off the dehumanizing effects of modern technology, Paul Waddell to preserve friendships and foster justice, Miroslov Volf to foster forgiveness and reconciliation, and Lisa Cahill to help marriages survive.
Along with this awareness of the importance of the community, which for Catholics is typically the parish, is the claim by theologians that this formation and support is not happening. Since the early seventies, Catholics seems to have not been formed or been formed poorly in the faith. This assumption seems to be born out in recent statistics:
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
This comes in the wake of an earlier report that indicates that that 10% of the US population is former Catholics.
For me, the worry is not the numbers per se but the implication that fewer people are being formed by the Church’s message of love of God and neighbor. We are being formed by other “communities”. Robert Putnam reads the loss of religious affiliation as a sign that political views dominate our understanding of society and the world. Politics seem to drive our religious affiliations more than the other way around. This is not too surprising as Putnam has long noted that many of the communities that shaped and formed us are disappearing leaving few other formative communities around.
Perhaps the only framework to rival the political one is the consumer one. Vincent Miller makes this claim in his Consuming Religion. In this book, Miller details how our consumer culture seems to transform everything, including religion, into commodities, and, as a result, it provides the framework through which people understand the world and their actions within it. Perhaps his most striking example of consumerism coopting faith is how Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the United States was surrounded by the production and purchasing of Popeners, Pope on a rope, Styrofoam pope hats, and John Paul II t-shirts.
I think this is why we need to think about the renewal of the parish. We live in a society where our politics and economics are becoming the ultimate framework for understanding ourselves and our actions. How can parishes become the formative communities that they need to be in these circumstances? How can the faith the parish is suppose to mediate help us to direct our politics and economics toward what is good, true, real, and beautiful? I hope over the next few weeks to explore 1) the challenges facing parishes in becoming formative communities, 2) what can be done to renew parish life, and 3) the implications of this renewal for our self and our society, a kind of social soteriology. In this advent season when we prepare for the incarnation of God’s word, I am hoping that this might be a discussion of how we too might give birth to God in our own lives and communities.
Jason, Great! I look forward to reading your upcoming posts.
My two cents at the outset:
I think parish life should be (1) inclusive; (2) affirming; (3) inspiring; (4) challenging (and I would probably rank those in that order because I think that if you give “challenging” priority you might turn people off too quickly; I’m open to hearing others’ views on this).
I would love to hear some creative ideas about linking catechetical training, adult faith formation/spirituality, liturgy, and social action. It seems like these are often handled separately within the parish, leading to sub-groups within the parish that don’t talk to one another.
I think Putnam’s analysis is spot-on. But a worry for me (as a working mom) is that the intermediate organizations that were fruitful for earlier generations may have survived/thrived because of society’s acceptance of the division of family labor as male-public/female-private. So women could participate in craft guilds or school volunteering in the school/daytime hours or men had bowling or union meetings at night. If/when both parents work full time, how much can/should we expect of them to participate in parish events? Creating a “new space” for Christians to come together will mean that it will look different than the intermediate organizations that worked for earlier generations. Facebook will have to be a part of it, like it or not. 🙂
The biggest turn-off for me in parish life is authoritarian and paternalistic leadership and poor preaching. But I’m grateful that we’ve found a faith community that is neither. It took a few years though.
Well done Jason, this is a very thought provoking post. Community building is surely an important topic.
I would agree with Emily that the Net is an inescapable part of the future of Catholic community, given how incredibly convenient the technology is.
In recent months I’ve been working hard trying to provide an exclusively Catholic publishing network, which can assist Catholic community building both on the global and local parish level.
It’s tough sledding. Three months in to the project, and the network has only two users, one of them being me. I’m beginning to question whether I really have anything to contribute.
The Catholic community doesn’t seem to understand community building online, and Catholic bloggers seem to suffer from the same malady afflicting the entire blogosphere.
I call this problem “lone wolf webmaster syndrome”. Typically, online writers of all flavors would rather fail on their own, than create the partnerships necessary for success. And so we see at least 2000+ isolated Catholic blogs, each working very hard to serve their own tiny almost non-existent audience. It’s an extremely inefficient enterprise.
The idea that “we can accomplish more working together than any of can on our own” seems a foreign concept indeed, even in Catholic land.
Another obstacle to community building I’ve noticed on the Catholic web is that it can be quite difficult to become part of any online Catholic community unless you agree almost entirely with the existing members of that community. Regrettably, adamant walls of fear are easy to build and maintain online.
Even with all these problems, online communities can add so much to the community experience offered by a local parish. Walking cold in to a big building full of strangers can be a real barrier, especially for those who are exploring or new to the faith.
And sometimes sharing just can’t wait until Sunday.