Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Catholics have lost

In my previous post I mentioned that I recently finished a book on the decline of Boston's Catholic culture. "The Faithful Departed" spends most of the book looking at the clerical abuse scandal and how its roots go back to the time the Catholic Church decided popularity and acceptance was more important than the Church's mission. For most of its existence the Catholic Church in America served a population that was primarily poor and marginalized. The Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants who formed the backbone of the church talked funny, wore strange clothes, worked awful jobs and lived apart from the Protestant majority. While American Catholicism still represents some of the poor and marginalized (for example, immigrants from Latin America), American Catholicism is now indistinguishable from the American mainstream. Pick a group of 100 non-Latino Catholics at random and they would look pretty much indistinguishable from 100 non-Catholics picked at random. We are no longer almost universally poor and ghettoized.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I stood in the old CYO room at one of the local churches. In the room were cases filled with very old trophies detailing the victories of basketball and bowling teams sponsored by the parish. Ancient black and white photos of the CYO participants adorned the walls. It was a throw back to a time when Catholics in America lived in a parallel world of their own creation with their own schools, clubs and organizations.

Catholic churches used to have their own banks. The Knights of Columbus had (and still have) special insurance products sold only to Catholics. My mother's church in Brooklyn, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, used to have a bowling alley in the basement. My father used to tell me that his church, Saint Cecilia, had special events every Saturday night for the parish teenagers. To attend, you had to show a card you received at catechism earlier that week (my father as an old man could still recite portions of the Baltimore Catechism whenever we would discuss matters spiritual, so I guess the lessens were pretty good). Even my cousins in Brooklyn used to hang out on the church steps with their friends.

That time seems long since gone. My neighborhood has something like six churches within walking distance of my house. But the old Irish/Italian working class that used to populate Park Slope is gone, replaced by a combination of bobos and, paradoxically, some immigrants. The immigrants are mostly Catholic and on a few occasions I have attended Spanish or bilingual Masses. There you can catch a glimpse of the old Catholic Brooklyn. But the immigrants are getting pushed out by new condominium development. The church buildings will remain. Some people will even attend Mass there. But the community will be gone.

Now, you can say that your church has a great community. They have coffee hours and diners and events for the kids. And that is true. But the centrality of the local Catholic parish is missing. That I fear is gone -- disappeared in the wake of clerical abuse scandals and the increasing assimilation and affluence of Catholics.

1 comment:

William R. Barker said...

An EXCELLENT piece, Anthony. Bravo!

The world - the USA - is a poorer place on account of the present day reality you touch upon.

One caveat: The Polish and other Eastern European immigrants do seem to be bringing "old style" Catholic Community back into being to an extent.

I wish them luck!


P.S. - I may actually read "The Faithful Departed" thanks to you. (*WINK*)