BISHOP RICHARD J. SKLBA
Among the more pastorally provocative books which I have read over the years was one published in 2008, a volume written by journalist Bill Bishop under the title of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”
It offered me an insight into our contemporary nation which has never gone away, even after all these years since first opening the book’s cover. Apparently, Bill and his wife were once driving around eastern Texas looking for an area to which they might relocate and settle down. For some reason, a few neighborhoods seemed more congenial to them than others. They tried to analyze the communities and discovered the reason: American communities tended to attract like-minded folks.
Although in some senses a blessing, that phenomenon has also become a major problem for our society today. This clustering may once have been true primarily for immigrant groupings, but apparently now it’s become the case for almost our entire American society, and mostly on the basis of ideological reasons, not ethnic origin. Immigrant groups initially tended to settle together because they spoke the same languages in meat markets and grocery stores and neighborhood taverns. Our world, however, has changed. Now seemingly almost everyone does it and the consequences can be dangerous.
Come with me for a moment back in time. From the fourth century, when Constantine first recognized Christianity as a legitimate religious reality and permitted its existence, the Catholic community worldwide was divided into dioceses and parishes. Each parish, except for those (much later) labeled “national,” namely dedicated to care for families of a certain ethnic background, had more or less clearly defined borders. The priest pastors were each responsible for Catholics within those parameters. In those early days, any Catholic who lived within the borders went to the same local Catholic parish, rich or poor, well-educated or not. Over the centuries, that homogeneity may have been assisted by the celebration of the Eucharist in Latin, but a deep sense of unity in faith certainly dominated no matter what other values or loyalties may have been embraced. The Mass was the Mass, everywhere and always. Catholic parishes were Catholic parishes, usually neighborly in character.
At long last, with the 1950s came the family car and the ability to search out a neighboring parish of choice, not merely for geographic proximity or canonical duty. Also, with the liturgical movement came the fact that some Catholic parish communities offered more engaging vernacular celebrations of the Eucharist than others. With the biblical movement, some homilies were more based on the Scripture readings of the day than others. People began to travel to parish communities outside their “borders.” With increasing numbers of families, parish membership became a matter of comfort and choice, not geography. Parish boundaries continued to exist, more for defining the responsibility of the pastor than for the canonical duty of the parishioners.
Protestant congregations, especially given their theological diversity as Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Congregational, etc., had always experienced geographical extensions beyond the immediate neighborhood, but mobile Catholics gradually began to follow those same patterns. Catholic adults and families began to worship with like-minded Catholics. Then neighborhoods themselves became increasingly populated by like-minded folks as the post-World War II population gravitated toward the suburbs and people sharing the same spirituality converged to support parishes which reflected their values and attracted like-minded people to worship and religious education. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Catholic experience also reflected the larger American society closely.
With growing diversity and sharper lines of delineation came the existence of neighborhoods and areas which took on a distinctive common political, social and ideological character, each distinguished from other nearby neighborhoods. Families moved to areas of folks who shared their values. Thus, more locally, Waukesha County was gradually but very clearly different from Dane County near Madison. In post-World War II decades, like-minded folks tended with ever greater frequency to live together. Moreover, to be elected to a political office, therefore, an individual had to reflect the values and concerns of his/her neighbors, only more so in order to stand out in seeking a position of leadership. Unfortunately, this has led us Americans to ever more clearly define ourselves as “not like them.”
Gradually over the decades and years, we have become an ever more bitterly divided nation. Those on each side seem to watch the same TV stations, embrace the same politicians and support the same political and social causes. Hence, the gridlock in Madison and in Washington. People band together, define their “opponents,” and sadly hardly even speak with others who might think differently. Compromise on major issues is deemed weak and defeatist. The political aisle in Congress becomes an impassible chasm. America pays the price.
Religious people may be differentiated by political and socio-economic mentalities, but we should be far more rooted in our convictions regarding our shared faith and our common destiny of full and final union with God. There is much value to being enriched by the opinions of others. There are no political parties in heaven. One might say that God loves all political groups, but for different reasons: one group for their care for life at birth, and another for their concern for social justice throughout the rest of life’s years.
My plea, based on our common baptismal vocation, is to be God bearers, all of us, who recognize but also transcend political differences and distinctions. As the Epistle to the Ephesians insists, Christ breaks down barriers, not only between Greek and Jew (2:14-18), but also between all human divides, including political ones. Moreover, anyone convinced of Catholicism with its worldwide embrace should also have a sense of mission to recognize the blessings of diversity, but never allow them to become divisions. God’s call is to seek and foster social unity in diversity. Because of our global embrace, the world needs us Catholics to become truly catholic. What Bill Bishop discovered down in Texas a dozen and a half years ago needs to be addressed by folks of faith everywhere, perhaps more pressing now than ever.