Monday, February 25, 2008

How Then Shall We Live?

You may notice a new link with "The Usual Suspects," entitled "Building Catholic Communities." While I did not come up with the idea myself, it is the potential culmination of an endeavor that I have researched over the last fifteen years.

Jeff Culbreath makes a formidable case for the resettlement of traditional Catholics, seeking a way of life in harmony with their Faith, in a revived post from his former El Camino Real, now republished at Catholic Restorationists. He explains what needs to be done, and why. He is less clear as to how. This is to be expected. It is a lot like "belling the cat." All the mice agree on the need to be alerted as to the feline's presence. But the wise old mouse among them calls their attention to the obvious: who will place the bell around the cat's neck?

One very telling remark in the comments to this post quoted C S Lewis from an essay entitled First and Second Things: "Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made." To put it another way, "You can’t get second things by putting them first: you can get second things only by putting first things first."

As with most achievements in life, there is an element of risk. Every now and then, a Catholic lifestyle discussion list would make what they ironically refer to as "a modest proposal" in order to "build community" and what-not. But nothing ever came of these proposals. A few years ago, a serious one was fielded by yours truly, on such a list. Out of over one hundred participants, only one response was received, from a guy who said it would never work. At the time, he was right.

Even so, there is on occasion where one ambitious homesteader relocates his growing family to a rural location, declaring that he has found the solution for himself and his kin. While this is a noble endeavor, it fails to take into account the need of living within proximity to others. We can migrate in our converted vans from one parish to another in search of the sacred, like so many Lost and Homeschooled Children of Israel. But at the end of the journey, we have returned to our suburban homes, safely tucked away amidst the cul-de-sacs. From our attached garages, we transition safely to our homes, never having to see or meet our neighbors, with the added insulation of our half-acre lawns, which usually produce little more than pollen. From within these manicured walls, we pat ourselves on the back for having thrown the television away, secure in the knowledge that we have defeated the enemy in the culture wars. But there we are, complaining of how our surroundings, our schools, our parishes, are harming the souls of our children, even as we are loathe to give them up by relocating.

In an article published some years ago for the Society of Saint John, writer Thomas Storck pointed out the difference between European farming settlements and their American counterparts. In Europe, a farming village is established for those who till the soil, surrounded by their fields. This is consistent with a Catholic mindset of interdependency as a form of communiity. In America, where the Protestant "me and Jesus" mentality prevailed during the westward expansion, farms were settled in isolation from one another. A man's own stake in the land effectively kept his neighbors away. How then to serve his neighbor at such a distance?

In Denmark, people who were disillusioned with the state of post-industrial housing in their country, developed a concept in the 1960s known as the "bofaellesskaber," or "living community." Residents would maintain private homes, but would have common facilities for the sharing of meals, childcare, workshop equipment, and the like. In the early 1970s, two California architects named Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett visited several of these developments. Upon their return to the states, they published a book entitled Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Far from a pie-in-the-sky concept, there are now nearly eighty cohousing developments already completed in the USA, and another one hundred in the planning stages.

The very idea of cohousing could draw upon Catholicism for its inspiration. In his 1517 book Utopia, St Thomas More describes such an arrangement, with a group of hosueholds sharing child care and other tasks.

There are several characteristics that distinguish cohousing from other types of housing developments. It is generally a collaborate effort; conceived, designed, and constructed with the involvement of the future residents themselves. There is a large "common house" in a central location. The settlement is "pedestrian-friendly," as houses are grouped so that people can walk from one place to another, with automotive traffic arranged at a safe yet convenient distance.

Cohousing does not require official ecclesiastical sanction, and if groups of aging hippies with little in common aside from a vague spirituality and some sort of "vision" can do it, so can traditional Catholics who have a whole way of life to bind them. In fact, the needs of home school families for a "co-operative" are more than satisfied in this arrangement. In addition to a common house and workshop, there may also be erected a private oratory, in the hopes that it may one day be used for the celebration of Mass. Even if this never happened (and the realities of the role of the local Church make this unlikely), it would demonstrate the proper focus that is to permeate a society, even at such a scale as this.

Imagine if you will, a village of two or three dozen households, some with large families. Their children are taught at home, but they meet in the common house for the weekly "co-op." While some breadwinners commute to the city during the week, there are numerous cottage industries and others who work out of their homes. Some families have one- or two-acre farms in the land surrounding the village proper. During the week, they operate a roadside produce stand. Every Wednesday, people from the surrounding area converge for a weekly "farmers market." On Friday evening, the residents meet in the oratory for Vespers. On Saturday night, there is an Irish ceili or a swing dance in the common house. People come from the vicinity, attracted to an alternative to the bars and saloons in town. The grownups celebrate together, while the younger children play, and the older children gather and kibbutz however they wish. On Sunday, unless they must attend a nearby parish, Mass is held (only once) in the oratory. The rest of the day is devoted to... well, rest. In late afternoon, dinner is held in the common house, and everybody pitches in.

What has been described here is not theoretical or a pipe dream. In one form or another, it already exists throughout North America. But it is not without its pitfalls. The drive for consensus building that is native to cohousing is in constant tension with progress. Some communities might find themselves adjusting their leadership models accordingly. Even with a strong leadership, there have been earlier attempts at creating a "Catholic community" that have failed. The charismatic "covenant communities" in Ann Arbor and Steubenville developed a role for lay "elders" that ignored a Catholic understanding of the autonomy of the family, and devolved from a Catholic milieu to one resembling a cult. The Society of Saint John, while they were still located in Pennsylvania, effectively proposed to recreate Tuscany on a hillside in the Poconos, without regard for the agrarian base essential to the building of Christendom in the Middle Ages, including such places as Tuscany. There was also a need for millions of dollars for the infrastructure, which to some degree ignored the value of human capital. Why build your own civilization, if you can simply hire someone to do it for you, and never get your own hands dirty? At present, a grand scheme in Florida for building a "Catholic town" adjoining a university, is in fact little more than a high-priced suburb, bearing little if any resemblance to a "town" in the traditional sense. For all the obsession over whether contraceptives or pornographic magazines would be sold there, the question that was never asked was: why would there be a demand for either in a "Catholic" community to begin with?

Detractors will make much of the resemblance to "communes" associated with bohemian types of the late 60s and early 70s. Such people did not invent the idea of living in common. Nor is cohousing as much like a hippie commune as an intentional neighborhood. Many towns and villages throughout the USA were settled in a manner that is not dissimilar to what is explained here. We simply got used to developers doing it for us.

The result is a society of people who have to get into a car and drive two miles to pick up a quart of milk. Sticking a Romanesque church in the middle of it all, surrounded by a Wal-Mart-sized parking lot, will do nothing to change such a wasteful way of life.

Be all that as it may, I submit that the cohousing model represents the most effective one for the rebuilding of a Catholic society at the human scale. Such an endeavor has been unrealized until now for various reasons. What these reasons have in common, perhaps, are a disregard for what it means to love our neighbor. So we clog the discussion lists and the blogosphere with wishful thinking, that we can somehow "build community" without breaking a sweat, or changing the way we live.

One wonders how any civilization worth preserving ever got off the ground in the first place.

1 comment:

Matthieu said...

cohousing is definitely a contemporary way to maintain privacy while enjoying the advantages of a community. For those intersted, watch the documentary "Voices of Cohousing", award winner at 34th Ekotopfilm festival 2007. Trailer and info: