Loading
July 27, 2012
The crisis of community
By Russell Shaw *

By Russell Shaw *

In recent years social critics like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Charles Murray (Coming Apart) have documented and deplored a decline of community among Americans. It’s a development that affects churches along with other institutions of civil society.

But “decline of community” is an abstraction and hardly self-explanatory. A story told by a man I know offers a concrete illustration:

“My wife and I have lived for many years in a nice, quiet neighborhood inhabited by nice, quiet people. In many ways, we’re very happy. But as time passes, I become increasingly aware that everything isn’t as it should be.

“Let me tell you about the Smiths – not their real name, of course. They lived here almost as long as we have, and they’re nice, quiet people too. A few weeks ago, my wife phoned their house hoping to chat with Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith answered.

“'Betty is out,' he told my wife, ‘and I can’t talk now. I’m packing.’

“'You’re taking a trip?’

“’We sold the house to our daughter and her husband. We’re moving.’ It turned out that they were going to a gated townhouse section several blocks away. The movers would be coming in two days.

“I was flabbergasted when my wife told me. As I mentioned, the Smiths had lived near us for many years. We weren’t particularly close friends, but our daughters had babysat their kids, and they were the only churchgoing Catholics in the vicinity besides ourselves. Yet here they were, all set to move, and they’d have gone without a word if my wife hadn’t happened to call.

“Now that, frankly, is what I call weird. Yet as I think about it, it’s also typical of life in our neighborhood. People here are strangers who happen to live near one another. In all the years we’ve been here, only one person – one! – has been truly friendly, really behaved as you might expect a neighbor to do. That was a woman who lived across the street from us, and she, I’m sorry to say, moved into a retirement home several years ago. Now it’s entirely a neighborhood of nice, quiet strangers.”

And that, I suspect, is the “decline of community” in one isolated but perhaps not atypical case.

To some extent, it may be a regional phenomenon. I suspect there are other parts of the country – perhaps even other parts of the city where the man who shared this story lives – where neighborliness and community can still be found. But if the Putnams and the Murrays are right, there are other places where they can’t.

Is that really so bad? Writing in “The Weekly Standard,” author Gertrude Himmelfarb maintains that it is. “Individuals are increasingly removed from the traditional networks of ‘civic engagement’ – family, friends, professional organizations, and other associations. This erosion of civil society results in a decline of ‘social capital,’ which bodes ill for democracy at home and for democratization abroad.”

And also for religion. Himmelfarb notes the problem this poses for “traditional denominational, neighborhood, family-centered churches.” The churches currently doing well in America, she observes, are megachurches where thousands gather to hear charismatic preachers and small, non-denominational “spiritual” churches “unstable in doctrine as in membership.”

In theory, a Catholic parish, understood as the locus of a eucharistic community, holds the key to a solution. But in practice? There are lively, vibrant parishes that are true communities. There are others that are not. We need to know a lot more than we do about what makes the difference. 

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.
« Previous entry     Back to index     Next entry »
Ads by Google
(What's this?)
blog comments powered by Disqus

RESOURCES »

Ads by Google (What's this?)

Featured Videos

Christ Cathedral CNA video Sept 2014
Christ Cathedral CNA video Sept 2014
Alejandro Bermudez of CNA accepts ice bucket challenge
'The Real Albania,' remembering those who fled
Pope Francis in Albania, "one of the most important visits of the post-communist era in Albania"
Pope Francis greets paralyzed man who risked all to see him
Franciscans on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, working for the New Evangelization
Pilgrimage from Czech Republic to Assisi and Rome for intentions
Testimony of young Indian who met Pope in Korea
Preparations of the Closing Mass of 6th Asian Youth Day
Missionary of Charity, Korea
Testimony of Christian Love during Pope's Visit to Korea
Religious Sisters in South Korea react to Pope Francis kissing a baby
Warm atmosphere during Holy Mass at Daejeon World Cup Stadium
Images inside Pope Francis flight to South Korea
The tombs of the early Christians
Missionaries of Africa, called "the White Fathers"
Italian youth give testimony after mission to Peru
Interview with Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See on the persecution of Christians
New book 'The Vatican unknown'
A Look at India from Rome
Oct
2

Liturgical Calendar

October 2, 2014

The Holy Guardian Angels

All readings:
Today »
This year »

Catholic Daily

Gospel of the Day

Lk 9:57-62

Gospel
Date
10/01/14
09/30/14
09/29/14

Daily Readings


First Reading:: Job 19: 21-27

Saint of the Day

St. Romuald »

Saint
Date
10/01/14

Homily of the Day

Lk 9:57-62

Homily
Date
10/01/14
09/30/14
09/29/14

Ads by AdsLiveMedia.com

     HTML
Text only
Headlines
  

Follow us: