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.

Go to Part 2