The Second Most Important Question

by Fr. Michael Enright, appearing in Volume 8

Those of us who work among the Hispanic immigrant population are shocked at how rapidly these immigrants are losing their faith. Still, if the truth be told, the same thing happened to the Germans and Irish and Poles who populated our cities and built the Church in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There is a problem. If it were not for the Catholic immigrants who continue to arrive here, we would look like Europe. We would be changing all our churches into museums. I suspect there are some concrete, easily understandable reasons why Catholics tend to become less Catholic over generations. These reasons connect to the “American dream,” and there are a few problems with the way we are living that dream out these days. There is a direct connection between people’s choice of where to live and their faith life. There are spiritual and ethical dimensions intimately connected to where you lay your head down to sleep at night. The Catholic Church has not yet taken on this discussion. We should.

This is where the rubber hits the pavement for nearly everyone. And I am surprised I haven’t heard much talk about the question. After the decision about who you will spend the rest of your life with, the next most important question has to be where you will live. The place you choose will affect your life in the most concrete and immediate ways. It will affect how many hours you spend in the car or maintaining your home. It will affect where your children go to school and whom they grow up with as friends. It will affect your financial future and the future of your immediate and extended family.

Before addressing the spiritual costs associated with the way we live, I would like to offer in a capsule form a few of the other costs. There has been some decent writing on this topic and for a fuller treatment the interested reader could look at “Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream,” or perhaps, “The Geography of Nowhere.” Both these books point to an upsurge in interest in what could be called “people friendly environments.” The authors outline a few of the effects of living our American dream the way we are. What are some of these effects?

The one that perhaps resonates most with our culture these days are the environmental costs associated with our lifestyle. We are wildly paving over some of the most fertile land in the world, building huge mansions in the middle of nowhere, running roads out to these mansions, and spending hours in our cars each week to get to our country estates. We are using up the environment at an unprecedented rate and are energy hogs with respect to the rest of the world. As a result of our dependence on petroleum we are deeply concerned with events in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world we can find oil. Some people, concerned with the environment, have moved toward thinking we should use hydrogen to move our cars and solar or wind power for our homes. Others are beginning to wonder whether we might want to make some more fundamental changes to our lifestyle. Perhaps we should find ways to live that require less energy and create a lifestyle that is more environmentally friendly.

Another effect that has caught the attention of some people is perhaps more self-centered. People are beginning to wonder about the economic cost of the dream, and whether what we are doing will be financially sustainable over the long haul. Housing starts, according to the government’s January 2003 figures, had risen to the highest level in nearly 17 years (1.85 million per year at January’s seasonally adjusted rate). Home building has replaced auto manufacture as the engine that drives the economy, but thinking people are beginning to wonder. In any industry, for a while the demand for any product exceeds the supply. Over time, the supply rises to meet the demand, and then the market becomes saturated. Our population is pretty well stable right now, and will soon begin to shrink. How long can the housing industry put up 1.85 million units a year and hope to sell them? We are building new homes like maniacs. And once the market is saturated, what will happen to the value of homes already built? People have been startled by what happened to the equity they had built up in the stock market. Part of the dream is to get ahead based on your home purchase ... to build some equity for your future. Imagine what might happen if the real estate market crashed. Thinking people are wondering if this may be coming down the road.

A third effect has to do with family life. Part of the dream is the promise of the good life. Aside from a pretty lawn and room for a swing set in the back yard, the dream promises improved family life. The soccer moms are wondering about these improvements. In old neighborhoods, you might send your kids out to play. They might play ball in the streets, or perhaps the alleys. If they were adventurous they might go to the park. Nobody had to drive them anywhere. They might run into kids who were a different color. When you needed a gallon of milk you might send your daughter to the corner store. If you had to pick up your dry cleaning you’d go for a walk. Going to grandma’s house meant heading upstairs or across the street.

If you’re living the dream you spend around an hour driving to work and an hour going home. On average, American dreamers spend the two hours we got off when they invented the eight-hour workday alone in our cars. Getting some milk means getting in the car. Visiting grandma, who lives alone in her castle, means dealing with traffic. When the kids get old enough to drive, each one will need a car. At least then mom will get a break, and not have to drive the kids everywhere. Still, someone will have to pay for these cars, insure them, and put gas in them. It would make life better if both parents went to work. At least that way you could make the house and car payments and have a little left over for an occasional vacation. All this means that families are pretty well exhausted at the end of the day, placed under extraordinary pressures by the dream. Where is that good life promised your family?

Having said all that, perhaps the most important effect of embracing the dream is the deadening of the spirit that accompanies it. And this is the effect writers are leaving out of the discussion, so far. I have heard preachers blasting off on our materialistic culture. On our self-centeredness. On our isolation and individualism. All of these things are problems, I think. When I look at the individuals, though, I wonder. As far as I can tell, my brothers and sisters living in the suburbs are not materialistic, self-centered, moneygrubbers seeking safety in splendid isolation. They are people trying to make ethical decisions in a culture that has gone a little crazy. I think they would like to live the values of the Gospel, but there are a couple of reasons they cannot.

The first is that they have no time or energy. Religion takes time and energy. Altruistic behavior takes time. From my own experience, when you are in a hurry you don’t notice or take action to help a stranger. And their time and energy are eaten up. A whole lot of people are running like crazy and just barely keeping up. Being exhausted and having no time is probably the same reason school boards and all kinds of other voluntary organizations, including our parishes, suffer from lack of participation. People are truly tired and many times do not have the time to take care of their immediate families, let alone extend themselves to care for strangers.

The second is that they do not live in communities. If you are living the dream, you may know a couple of neighbors, but a couple of neighbors is not a community. A community includes both strangers and friends. There are people you might run into on your sidewalk and people who live next door. There are old ladies who stop to chat on a summer evening when you’re sitting on your front porch. There’s the guy in the corner store who knows your name. There are kids making noise and maybe there’s a town drunk. The Liturgy of the Catholic Church assumes that we gather as a community of believers. The Sunday Mass assembly is a group of people who have had some contact with each other during the week. If they have not had that contact the Liturgy gets overloaded with first creating a kind of “pseudo-community” that comes together only to worship, then trying to move that pseudo-community through the rituals that sanctify us.

What can the Catholic Church do to help? There are a couple of things I would like to suggest. First, I think we should begin to think and talk about these realities. As I pointed out earlier, the decision about where to live is perhaps the second most important decision made in the lives of ordinary people. Until now, we have not found a way to inform that decision with the values of the Gospel. As my brother asked me once, “How come I never hear about this stuff in church?” We need to do some hard thinking about the relationship between the built environment and the Body of Christ ... beyond shaping worship space there is a critical need to shine the light of the Gospel on our whole living environment and these essential decisions people have to make.

Once we have some clear thinking done about these issues, we need to move to the second step. The second thing the Church can do is begin to make the case, so to speak, for our cities. I suspect the Church could form a partnership with mayors, for example, and other interested people (environmentalists? New Urbanists?) and perhaps put together a couple of Television spots. Imagine the ad ... a family sitting in a living room watching TV. The father tells his young son, “Timmy, your grandma’s program is on. Why don’t you tell her?” Timmy goes to the phone and calls Grandma, who lives alone, and tells her on the phone, “Grandma, your program’s on.” In Version II of the same scenario, Timmy goes over to the staircase and shouts, “Grandma, your program’s on.” She shouts back down, “Thanks Timmy. I’ll be right down.”

Or perhaps the family runs out of milk. The kid pours out the last of the gallon and shouts to the living room, “Ma, we’re out of milk.” In Version I the mother pulls a long face, finds her car keys, and heads out to the store for milk. In Version II, Timmy gets sent over to the corner store, passing a few people who greet him by name, and buys the gallon of milk from the owner, who knows him by name. At the end of these ads, there could be a kind of tag line. “Brought to you by the coalition for reasonable living,” or some such.

We need to begin to discuss the ethical and spiritual implications of our lifestyle choices. We have to take a critical look at the way our built environment affects the Body of Christ ... not so much the individuals as the whole Body.

Then we have to begin to get the word out. If we can do these things, perhaps we can begin to move toward building something that more closely resembles the heavenly Jerusalem.