One of the demands of Catholic social teaching is that there should be societies, groups of human beings who gather to promote the common good, or to enjoy a good that can only be had, or can best be had, if we are in groups, especially if we are united by kinship, friendship, a common love, or the worship of God. And one of the most obvious features of contemporary life is that it is destructive of societies.
Many are its weapons of social destruction. Individualism is one, whether in its form as the pursuit of wealth, ambition, or power, or in its form as sexual action without regard to marriage and the welfare of children.
Collectivism, the twin brother that individualism pretends to despise, is another, as the state attempts to ameliorate the social dissolution it has helped to cause in the first place, by means that spread salve on the wounds but exacerbate and prolong the disease. In short order, people no longer remember how many and various were the things they used to do for themselves, their kin, their neighbors, and their fellow parishioners. And the family, both the foundational human society and the principal end for which we establish many of our other societies, grows frail and sickly.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The Church’s teachings regarding sex and marriage are ineradicable from her social teachings generally, as you may discover for yourself if you read, for example, the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. To sell yourself as a proponent of her social teachings while you deny or disparage what she says about fornication, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, and divorce, is to be selling vitamins laced with arsenic. The vitamins are good, but the arsenic will make sure there are fewer bodies for the vitamins to invigorate. Or it is like building a house without a foundation: it will fall in the next storm.
What I want to note here, though, is the withering away of social life in general, a withering that has struck the Church and is by now of long duration. And here I turn for an exemplar to my boyhood parish, in Archbald, Pennsylvania. When I was nine years old, in 1967, just as dark clouds were brewing, while terrible storms had already struck elsewhere, the short stretch of road called Church Street was, from September to the beginning of June, a beehive of activity.
We had Masses every morning—two at least, and that meant that the altar boy whose turn it was had to get there by 6:45 a.m. Not a problem, though; the parish school was across the street, and both church and school were right in the center of the most densely populated neighborhood in the borough, yet not in the traffic of Main Street.
By 8 a.m., four hundred children, 50 in each of eight classes, would be gathering in the church or would be hanging around the “playground,” a blacktopped area next to the school. They weren’t the only young people, either. The borough’s high school was catercorner to the parish school—for at that time, the tri-borough consolidated school district had not yet destroyed the small school in favor of a new complex far away from almost everybody.
Church, parish school, public high school; nor were the schools antagonistic to one another. We had, on the third story, the basketball court the public-school students used, and teachers in the public school made sure that their Catholic students trooped over to the parish school once a week, after hours, for religious instruction. Yet that wasn’t all. On the other side of the playground, the Knights of Columbus had their small building, where you could go to buy some candy or soda. And those 500 young people weren’t cooped up inside their buildings all the time and then shipped home in buses. We had a real hour for lunch, and most of us walked to and from school.
That meant that 500 young people, five days a week for nine months of the year, would be here and there, getting a sandwich at a luncheonette (which no longer exists), or stopping for a treat or to pick up a comic book at one of the two drug stores (which no longer exist), or ducking in for a haircut into one of the two barber shops (which no longer exist); in general, being themselves, small persons as members of families that might never get together except for those small persons; and that doesn’t get to the informal play they would get going on their own, no small part of the life of a healthy child, and no contemptible feature of a real society.
The parish school was bought up by the borough after enrollment suddenly collapsed and the order of religious sisters that used to run the school (the Immaculate Heart of Mary) dried up, having got the self-actualization bug. The school had to charge tuition, which the spoiled parishioners were unwilling to pay; and besides, their taxes were getting hiked to pay for the new public school. And there were fewer children anyway, for who wants children when you can have—whatever?
So now, St. Thomas Aquinas School is the borough building, and the Powers have tacked cheap entryways onto the front door and the side doors, along with a loud sign, with no sense of irony or sadness, proclaiming the Archbald Historical Society. The K of C was torn down to extend the parking lot, which is where the playground was. The public high school, a handsome building, was torn down long ago, and a little garden with a sort of headstone marks where its place once was.
The beehive of activity is no more. It is not that it has moved somewhere else. Nowhere in town will you find a shadow of the social life that once throve, just by the natural action of the children and their parents gathering around those places that were most important to them.
Almost every social innovation in my time, it seems, has had the same sort of eviscerating effect. The firehouse a few hundred yards away from our home used to host dances, with the music provided by local rock bands. That was already a corruption of what had been: because the noise, the typical darkness, and the strange angry lust of many of the songs made it unthinkable that people of all ages would gather there. For when sex seems to be easy and free, it exacts an exorbitant cost on many a wholesome human activity; those become dangerous, and the danger then imperils them, and death comes soon after.
We had a drive-in movie in our town, but the movies after around 1965 turned sharply away from what a family might watch without worry; and the behavior of young people in their cars was, well, no longer decent or mirthful. Some of the drive-ins then turned to porn to stay in business, which was like taking opium to remedy your alcoholism. In short order they, too, were a thing of the past.
Jane Jacobs—raised in my county—suggested, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), that children, outdoors, not controlled directly by adults but under their general and informal supervision, were essential to a thriving city life. Where there are no children—because no one is having them, or because the state has absorbed more and more of their time, or because the public square bristles with grave moral hazards—you can talk all you want about Catholic social teaching; there will be no real society for it to apply to. That should not be a hard lesson for us to learn.