Catholic culture is an elusive term. It is -- by definition -- the most nuanced, most diverse, most complex culture on the planet. Catholics practice their faith freely in some areas and underground in others. They're among the poor and the rich. Indian Catholics are completely different from American Catholics. In fact, Filipino Catholics have different customs than Mexican Catholics, and they both have Spanish roots. It’s all different, yet they’re all Catholic.
So how do you define Catholic culture? The vagueness of the term only becomes vaguer without something concrete exemplifying it. In medieval times, there was something concrete: the large village centered around a parish, guilds, a market and maybe a monastery. It emerged because it was already surrounded by a Catholic society that integrated Catholic values into the lifestyle of the people. The Catholic villages of Europe were a decent embodiment of Catholic culture.
So why not build a Catholic village?
There would be financial and legislative challenges. We've seen many dream projects like this fall apart before. We've seen boom towns become ghost towns once resources ran out, we've seen planned communities built on a large scale become bankrupt because they couldn't attract enough people. Then there are the county, state, and federal housing and zoning laws the town would have to abide by, and municipal laws if the town is within a municipality. Before even all of these obstacles though, we'd have find the money to build the town.
While acknowledging the practical, logistic obstacles to building a Catholic village, there is also the wisdom of Catholic Social Teaching that rightfully asks, "Should we build such a place"? Not only is secular society presenting challenges. Catholic Social Teaching does as well, because we as Catholic laypeople are supposed to live amidst our neighbors. Otherwise how can we love them and witness to them? We’re supposed to disperse ourselves throughout society to evangelize in the workplace, the public square, and to be there – to be present – where everyone else is present. We ought to be a part of the many walks of life, the many subcultures, offices, and communities in our fragmented society, so as to be the unifying element in them all.
To many well-meaning Catholics, building a Catholic village around a parish and/or monastery would go against this calling to live in the world. It would in ways be contrary to Christ's commission to be the salt of the earth, the yeast in the bread. This may be why Catholics are not building large villages like they did in medieval Europe. Assimilating into society is considered by many people to be a more effective way to evangelize.
A Catholic village may have worked in the past, but today things are different. Today we live in a secular society.The large Catholic village succeeded in Europe because the society was already Catholic. The common peasants, merchants and landlords lived within a feudal system that naturally sprang forth from a society with predominantly Catholic beliefs, and they were fine with it because their religion taught them the importance of fidelity, leadership and honor. They were content to live within a guild system because their worldview recognized the order of nature given it by God, so they saw the value in imitating that order.
Today’s relativistic society abandoned order for the sake of freedom – assuming a society couldn’t enjoy both – so now it’s more difficult to build a community on medieval values. With that backdrop, does the construction of a self-sustainable village even make sense today? One can argue that Amish Country, China Town, Little Italy and India Square do it. But here’s the thing: none of them are Catholic (well, Little Italy kind of is, but that’s a topic for another time.)
The Social Justice Component
Social justice, as it’s understood today, is not the only component of justice. Catholic Social Teaching includes all the other components of justice, to remind people that a discussion on social justice is dangerous if it does not view justice in its entirety. It must keep in mind moral justice, personal justice, theological justice, natural law, and others. When we see that justice has multiple components, the supposed obligation to be integrated into society for the sake of social justice seems foolish. Being as integrated as we are may even be detrimental to our social justice causes, because if our sense of justice is not coming from a strong moral foundation, it is misguided. A strong Catholic community, a Catholic village, can ensure that strong foundation is instilled within its members.
I used to know a Catholic young adult lay community in Philadelphia that aimed to integrate an authentic Catholic lifestyle into their everyday life. They lived in houses scattered throughout the city and worked in the city, yet they were also united in prayer and fellowship, and they held each other accountable in living the Christian life. But they were not self-sustainable. They had to rely on the secular world for work, housing, and even leisure. As a result, they often had to compromise their values just to live a normal life.
Engaging the culture too much leads to its own problems. Oftentimes Catholics end up being evangelized by the culture rather than the other way around. The key is to find a balance, and I think a boldly Catholic community where religious and lay people live in close proximity, while being part of society just enough to evangelize it, is the ideal. But is this possible? Can we build an authentically Catholic village and assimilate it into society at the same time? Or would the desire to fully integrate into society become too strong? Or perhaps the desire to become completely closed off from society would take over.
Both ... And
I believe there is a way to reconcile the conflict between societal integration and authentic Catholic community. It's no different than how an artist needs to close himself off from the world to do his work, but must also engage it once he's ready to share his work with the world.
If we're reluctant to build a Catholic village because we think it would be too isolated, either geographically or ideologically, we should look at examples in America that make America what it is. Nothing makes America more American than communities like Amish country, India Square, China Town, Little Italy, etc. They may seem a bit more closed off to society around them than the average Catholic, but I wouldn’t say these communities are isolated. Amish country is a tourist attraction, and the tourists appreciate the authenticity of it. They also have markets scattered across the country that people flock to for homemade style food and artisanship. Likewise, China Town and India Square are not isolated. They're in the middle of the city. It’s actually inconvenient to ignore these places. It would actually be easier to live in the modern world if we came to a deeper understanding of the cultures that are in our midst; if we, for example, read the Spanish newspaper at our local convenience store, even if we can’t read Spanish, just to get the feel for the Latino culture of our neighbor. But, we for the most part ignore these kinds of things. We ignore every culture that isn’t familiar, then we call our nation diverse and universal because at least we endure their presence. Do we fear that a Catholic village that does things its own way would just be avoided by society due to its lack of familiarity?
Why can’t there be a Catholic version of the Amish, Chinese and Indian communities aforementioned? It would become a large village similar to those in medieval Europe, yet it would be a part of modern society’s tapestry, in it but not made of the same fabric.
So the question remains: should we build a Catholic village, Or should we just live in the world, as so many faithful Catholics are already doing – representing Christ in their workplaces, in their families, in their social life, evangelizing in their own unique way?
Well, yes and yes. You can do it through integration and through community. The community can evangelize through its collective example, through the beautiful and authentic culture that will develop within it – a culture that will be so full of life that it will naturally diffuse itself into the world.
Catholicism isn’t about no's. It’s about yeses. It’s not an "either ... or" kind of religion either. It’s not based on either Scripture or Tradition, it’s not either conservative or liberal, it’s not either active or contemplative, and it’s not for either the laity or the religious. It’s the “both ... and” type, and I think that’s what our millennial generation is as well. Whether we know it or not, we want authentic Catholic culture while living in society; we want both a self-sustainable Catholic community and an outreaching culture. Such a community has to reach out. It cannot isolate itself. That’s the bottom line. We have to cast into the deep. If we want to build such a community we cannot cut ourselves off from society. Then we will have a modern example of Catholic culture.
This article was first published on Hub Pages October 19, 2010. It was first revised and republished on the Rambling Spirit Blog October 28, 2013, and revised again in December 2019.