Catholic pioneers in the suburban landscape
By ARTHUR JONES
Ask not, said scholar Anthony Smith, what Catholics did to the surburbs. Ask, rather, what the suburbs have done to Catholicism.
Could it be that the 1960s migration to the suburbs was what caused so many American Catholics to so wholeheartedly embrace the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)?
Smith, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, wonders.
Smith also wonders whether one of the primary characteristics of Vatican II -- its openness to a changing modern world -- was in fact already being practiced by American Catholics who moved from urban ghettos to the suburbs, where they found themselves with Methodists and Jews for neighbors.
Cultural critics look down their noses at the suburbs, but some people in moving into the suburbs saw themselves as pioneers and identified themselves that way, Smith said. So we need to get beyond thinking of the suburbs as ugly strip malls and mass-produced houses. The picture is far more complex than ones notion of aesthetics.
My question, he said, is, did the impact of Vatican II depend as much on the ranch-style housing American Catholics were moving into as it did on Gaudiam et Spes [Joy and Hope, the councils document on The Church in the Modern World]? The council urged Catholics to engage their culture, their community. And these pioneers were doing just that.
Smith, a child of mass suburbia (Levittown, Md.) wants to examine the suburbs not merely as the place where Catholics went when they left the big-city ghettos, but suburbs as complex and even controversial experiences. He aims to address this lacuna of our understanding of Catholics in the second half of the 20th century. I suppose all scholarship is, at some point, autobiographical. So in some ways I think this is kind of a way to figure out the world I live in and the Catholicism within it. And to inquire about the relationship between the two.
Smith was high school age when his father was transferred to Michigan. They left Levittown for just outside East Lansing. As a teenager 20 years ago, he despised the suburbs as a God-awful wasteland. Now hes wondering if he had it right.
The narrative we tell of American Catholics is still urban focused, he said. It recalls a multiplicity of images: processions around urban churches, Catholic presence in the neighborhood parades, parish festivals, the Virgin Mary on the duplex lawns sheltered in a plaster-cast grotto critics called the bathtub, kids in parochial school uniforms filling the sidewalks twice a day, nuns everywhere, priests in collars nodding hello as they went to get pipe tobacco from the neighborhood store.
But in the suburbs, what? Two signs in front of a neat corner church -- one listing the Masses and the other the hour bingo starts?
Whoa, says Smith. Back up a bit before thinking of it in that limited way. Its that we always talk more about the Catholics who stayed in the city -- and there were people who stayed -- than those who moved out.
Said Smith, there was white flight (particularly following the urban riots of the 1960s, he said), yet because Catholics were so rooted to the city parishes, Catholics left the cities at a slower rate than did Protestants and Jews. Another factor was that Protestants and Jews owned their buildings. They could more easily pick up and rebuild. Catholic churches, though, legally belonged to the diocese. Bishops, not parishioners, decided what to close and where to build anew.
The bedrock material for probing the answers -- the suburban memoir and suburban studies -- is only just now beginning to emerge, said Smith.
Theres John McGreevy (Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter With Race in the 20th Century Urban North, Chicago University Press), who points out that urban racial conflicts often seemed to have a Catholic dimension. Theres also D.J. Waldies short memoir, Holy Land (St. Martins Press), David Beers Blue Sky Dreams (Harcourt) and Nicholas Dagen Blooms Suburban Alchemy: 1960s New Towns and the Transformation of the American Dream (Ohio State).
Is Smith, a walking, talking suburban memoir himself, pining for his own Levittown lost?
Yes, in a way he is.
After Boston College, the now 37-year-old scholar did his doctoral work in American Studies at the University of Minnesota because the focus was on some very interesting, cutting-edge stuff in 20th-century culture. Maybe, because the Jesuits had trained me well, I started asking, Where are the Catholics in all this? American culture has been formed by mass culture, yet this largest U.S. religious denomination was generally overlooked.
The mass culture is secular. Its goals are secular -- to make a buck. It is exploitive, titillating. Thats the logic of it, he said. Catholic imagery -- you want me to speculate, right?
I think a key feature would be rooted, still, in the Catholic family -- the family that interacts in the suburban neighborhood with other Americans. Or, it may be something as simple as Catholic students in public schools gravitating toward one another. From those Catholic families that do expose their children to actual Catholic culture, discourse, art and experience.
Those families are not in a majority. If anything, the 35 students Smith has in his The U.S. Catholic Experience class at the Marianist-run university are underexposed. They havent much historical sense and no real sense of the tradition, said Smith. One student told him Catholicism is about being nice. So wheres the edge? asks Smith.
They do know about Dorothy Day. They think of her as someone who went out and helped people. Or built houses for the homeless. Theyve no idea of the Catholic countercultural vision she offered, no sense she was critiquing capitalism. Critiquing communism. He thought about it for a moment. No, he said, correcting himself, in every class I think there are a few who know.
Most young Catholics have no sense that Catholicism confronts -- counterculturally and in other ways, he said. In the 1920s and 30s, and today.
Seventy years ago, U.S. bishops, drawing on Leo XIIIs social teaching, in some ways an anti-modern critique of capitalist-individualist society, offered an alternative, an organic, communitarian ideal. The bishops didnt want to get rid of capitalism but wanted to acknowledge its limits, they wanted a role for the state, government, a role for workers, labor and industry would be reorganized, everyone with a role to play -- even participating in the management.
That countercultural stance has continued, he tells his students, in the U.S. bishops 1970s peace pastoral, in their constant support for a living wage, their open borders attitude, their stands on immigration, their opposition to the death penalty, to abortion and their responses to a whole series of questions opened up by bio-technology.
Smiths students retort, Why didnt I get any of this in high school?
He tells them its never too late to explore. Its what hes doing in his decision to look more closely at Catholicisms role in the suburbs.
A couple of decades ago, when Smith was a teenager, he was sympathetic to suburbias critics. Using his high schools friends as actors, he made a 10-minute movie, The Valley of Ashes -- a portrayal of suburbia as a wasteland.
It was teenage angst, he said with a laugh.
He describes himself as a teenager who invested myself personally and intellectually in the notion of urban cosmopolitanism, and the suburbs as God-awful places.
City life loomed attractive, he said. As a teenager I wanted to participate in the dynamic, rich urban life and culture, get beyond my little world. I wanted the broader world that the city seemed to represent.
And in some ways it does, without a doubt, he said. When my wife and I bought our house in Dayton it was to become part of and contribute to an urban neighborhood, a tighter, more compact community, a great range of people, and people in different stages of life. Greater access to cultural things.
An urban life doesnt have to be predicated on the automobile -- and that mattered to me.
Yet Ive started to look back, he said, to limn the kind of moral, psychological and imaginative landscape of Catholics in the suburbs. First generation, second generation, now third generation, to see where this goes.
Of course, a Catholic kid from Levittown, Md., now a scholar looking for God and a Catholic subculture in the suburbs, might have subconscious pressures pushing his questioning in this direction.
The Smiths have just had their first baby.
Many an urban couples move to the suburbs happened when, as parents, they started asking: Is the city any place to raise and educate a child?
Arthur Jones is NCRs California-based editor at large. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001