Came across this editorial in Our Sunday Visitor last week and, after realizing that it was not about NFP (“Catholic Body Parts”? Seriously? Am I weird for thinking that?), thought it summed up well some of the musings I’d been half-formulating in my mind lately. The article starts:

“While the Tea Party folk are drowning moderate Republicans in the King’s Harbor and Democrats want to send Blue Dog Democrats to the pound for being too Republican, and even President Obama is putting away his Harvard-educated cool and handing out pitchforks to storm Wall Street, voices that call for anything other than angry ideological purity seem pusillanimous at best.”

This is true, I believe. But the story’s secondary headline is what makes it interesting to Catholics:

“The American propensity for self-sorting into like groups has led to impoverished Church community.”

We think of the “church-shopping” phase as a uniquely Protestant trend, one that involves weighing pastors v. worship bands, size v. ministries, or, if the searcher is really serious about a change, perhaps a total switch of denominations, too. We think, how lucky we are to be part of a Church that is universal — Mass at one parish is the same Mass at another. And of course, theologically, it’s true. So then, when my Protestant housemate last year (who, in the middle of her own church-shopping, was trying to decide how important it was for her to have a racially diverse church family) asked me if I’d go to the Catholic parish down the street, why did I say no? Because I thought it was weird that they had the female readers and extraordinary ministers revolving around the altar in albs, and I thought the homily was feel-good and wishy-washy, and the choir sang some horribly ’80s song about how we were all playing flutes and tambourines, and the church was maybe a third full at the main Mass, with retirees making up the majority of the congregation. What about the student parish? Because they mention “social justice” in their mission statement, but not “Christ.”

Why did I become a parishioner at the historic Catholic church downtown? Because it’s beautiful. Because the friars who serve it are orthodox. Because I think the regiment of all-boy altar servers at the 10 o’clock Mass is cool.

So, for better or for worse, I’ve participated to some extent in parish-shopping, and I suspect that most of my Catholic peers, to whom Catholicism means something, have done similarly at some point in their post-living-at-home lives.

The author points out the danger of this:

“Folks gravitate to certain parishes depending on their predilections. The home-schoolers might lean toward one parish, while the social justice folks migrate to another. Since many dioceses no longer require that a Catholic attend the parish in his geographic location, it is easier than ever to parish shop. If your tastes run to cassocks and rosaries, you will find a home. If you want to share communion with folks who are helping undocumented workers and AIDS babies, you’ll find a home, too.

Just not the same home.

There are many dangers to this, I believe. One is that we don’t encounter people who share our faith but think differently from us. And it makes us really irritated when we do encounter such people.”

The entire editorial is pretty short, so I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full argument. But this is what struck me most. Especially the part about becoming irritated at Catholics who think differently than us — as if we can’t comprehend how someone could not think “Lord of the Dance” is the worst excuse for liturgical music ever, or, horror of horrors, be a registered Democrat.

Is this editorial’s point, ultimately, idealistic? Is it unrealistic, in the state of the Church today, to expect every parish randomly picked off the map to be able to spiritually nourish its members, to fully and purely communicate Christ to them through the Sacraments? To convince the elderly, the youth, the young families, the traddies, the social justice types, the charismatics, everyone — that this is their home?

A friend was recently telling me about her parish priest, who, in his enthusiasm for the Traditional Latin Mass, has started gathering like-minded young adults in the area, promoting a traditional spirituality and making the parish a stronghold of All Things Latin in the region. I don’t have a problem with the Latin Mass. But what if those well-intentioned actions begin to alienate your original parishioners? (Like my friend, who would give her life for the Catholic Church, but — can you imagine! — doesn’t wear a chapel veil). What if what results is the impression of an us vs. them mentality, a bunkering down of The Holders of the Full, Full Truth against the liturgical liberals — you know, the ones who like “On Eagles Wings”? I do have a problem with that: because you’re giving the impression that there is the Church, and then there is the Church within the Church, and the latter is what the real Catholics belong to. Kinda Gnostic if you ask me. But anyway. Of course it goes both ways. And of course, doctrinal orthodoxy must be the standard in every parish. I’m not saying I didn’t have good reason to feel iffy about attending the student parish … I just think it’s sad.

Overall, I think this topic prompts more questions than conclusions for me. Namely:

  • Luke made the point that there’s a difference between parish-shopping and parish-hopping. Is one worse than the other? What does it say about us?
  • Should all parishes be uniform in terms of liturgy, ministries, congregation demographics, etc.? Or are our social justice parishes, charismatic parishes, traditional parishes, ethnic parishes, inner-city parishes, suburban parishes, etc., still a reflection of the universal Church?
  • Or, to provoke more controversy…is this editorial just relativistic call for “tolerance” and “diversity” veiled in Catholic-speak?
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2 thoughts on “

  1. I’m not going to jump into the debate as to whether one should church-hop or shop (till you drop). I will say this, on the subject: a few weeks ago I was at a lecture by a professor from Calvin College (in Calvin’s Chapel). This professor, James K. A. Smith, has been published by First Things and some other reputable Christian publications. He said in his talk (this was a bit of a side-note but still a very interesting point) that one of the most important things for a Calvin student to do in order to be properly educated at Calvin is to find a parish community in the area to be part of during one’s college years.
    I think it is interesting that people talk about Cafeteria Catholicism in the way that they do. Parishes have changed to isolated bastions of issue-nuts, but before they were built on people who were of one mind in their political and religious beliefs they were built on people who were of one ethnicity. It seems to me that Cafeteria Catholicism isn’t a new problem, it’s just that the cafeteria is serving different food these days, if you will. Roman Catholic churches have merely switched from homogeny to social homogeny.

  2. I’ve finally reached that point where I have more unwritten blog posts in my head than time to write them.

    I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time; the same tension has struck me. On the one hand, those of us who are striving for sainthood but haven’t yet gotten there need a parish that can nourish us where we’re at. On the other hand, we /do/ need the legitimate diversity, the universality that the Catholic Church has always provided, for better or worse.

    In Masterworks of God, Monsignor Mannion posits three elements that have led to the present crisis of culture: the subjectification of reality (truth is relative to what I think), the intimization of society, and the politicization of culture (you can’t just help people or speak the truth without pushing a political agenda). “By the intimization of society I mean the process by which social complexity is eschewed in favor of a model of human coexistence that puts ultimate value on bonds of intimacy, personal closeness and radical familiarity.”

    He goes on, but his salient point here is that we’ve lost the understanding of how to relate to someone who’s not our intimate friend; this goes right along with our confessional culture (or a “generation of exhibitionists,” as Fr Martis recently said in a conversation about blogging). As the OSV author so aptly implied, we can’t understand the Body of Christ if we spend all our time with others of the same body part.

    Kevin has me proofreading a book of essays about “What is a parish?” I can only hope that I’ll have something more profound (or at least settled) to say about this when I’ve finished.

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